Austin economic leaders push for bigger piece of space industry

Jan 28, 2015
Austin American Statesman

If Google is going into space, can Austin be far behind?

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the University of Texas don’t think so

After almost a year of study, the chamber is staking its claim to a piece of the emerging space economy as the university opens up a master’s degree program to the next generation of space entrepreneurs

“Space is going through this incredible time of change and a lot of innovation,” said Paul Baffes, a co-chair of the chamber’s space study. “Austin is one of the greatest innovation cities in the world. For us not to be linked to that just seems crazy.”

At its annual meeting Wednesday, the chamber is adding the space economy to the list of industries that its economic development arm, Opportunity Austin, targets for special attention. The goal is to grow the nascent space industry already in the five-county region and to recruit more to come

Austin is trying to catch the wave of a space industry that has moved from the purview of governments to the private sector. Just this month, Google and Fidelity invested $1 billion in billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which tests rockets near Waco and is building a launch site in South Texas

SpaceX is opening a satellite center in Seattle as Google looks at the possibility of constellations of small satellites that would expand the reach of the Internet

Central Texas already has its own rocket company, Firefly Space Systems, that last year began its move from California to Cedar Park. It is building its test facility for rocket engines in Burnet County

“The space economy is not going to be built in NASA centers,” said Rich Phillips, co-chairman of the chamber’s space study. “It’s going to be built by companies and entrepreneurs willing to take risks.”

Baffes with IBM and Phillips, a public relations consultant with space technology clients, led a study group of about 25 business and government leaders from Central Texas

The global space economy is $314 billion annually, Baffes said, with less than a fourth of it from governments

“People think of space as being mostly government,” he said. “It’s really turned commercial.”

NASA, for example, has awarded $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX to build rockets and spacecraft for ferrying astronauts into space

The Austin space study looked at data for 400 companies in 17 industry sectors to find Central Texas’ niche, Baffes said

The top priority for Central Texas should be small satellites, small launch providers, spacecraft components and software, the study concluded. Elements of human space flight, space resources and the Internet also might offer opportunities

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