Monday, July 21, 2014

Highway 83 Community Brownsville, Texas, to Enter Space Age

Credit: SpaceX
When it comes to transportation history, Highway 83 has it all.
The first keel boats to traveled up the Missouri with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and touched the lands near present day Washburn, North Dakota. Bismarck, North Dakota, and Pierre, South Dakota, were major ports for the steamboats that followed. 
Railway buffs will find plenty to explore in hubs such as Minot, North Dakota, and North Platte, Nebraska. Almost every town on Highway 83 owes its existence to a railroad.
Excellent air museums can be found in Minot and Liberal, Kansas. McCook, Nebraska, and Childress, Texas, are two spots where one can see the remains of World War II airfields.
And Highway 83 itself is a tribute to our national road system and the automobile age.
But did you know that Highway 83 will soon add space travel to this list?

History was made this week when it became known that the company SpaceX  had apparently selected a site northeast of Brownsville, Texas, as a future launch site for its Falcon rockets.
SpaceX was founded in 2003 by billionaire Elon Musk, who, at age 29, had just sold his interest in PayPal to eBay and was looking for a new challenge.
I have a small claim to fame as a journalist, having got the scoop that Musk intended to enter the space business. 
In 2002, I was working as a freelance reporter in California, when I was assigned by the business weekly publication Space News to cover a panel on “space entrepreneurs” in Palo Alto. It was a lightly attended affair with presenters talking about their entrepreneurial ideas. Many of them were long shots, I recognized. Sending anything into space is a wildly expensive proposition. Such projects are normally carried out by large defense contractors with the U.S. government footing the bill. 
The moderator then introduced Musk, whom I had never heard of. But when he mentioned that he had recently sold his interest in PayPal, my ears perked up. This young man, I realized, had a buttload of money.
Credit: SpaceX
He announced that he intended to get into the space business. He said he had three basic questions before starting a venture. Is it intrinsically interesting? Is there a possibility of changing the world for good in some way? And is there a return on investment?
After the panel, I went up to him and pressed him for details. He only said that he was thinking about either building satellites or launching rockets. That was surprising. This was the realm of giant contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. 
And launching rockets is a huge deal. Lowering the cost of sending payloads into space had been a huge technological challenge. Every pound lofted costs hundreds of dollars. 
I called my editor the next day and told him about the big story. I had looked into Musk online and noted that he had attended small groups of like-minded space dreamers — Mars Society types — who met informally in coffee shops. He was also worth one billion dollars! What is a billionaire doing hanging out with the space nerds? I wondered. 
My editor was cynical — and rightly so. One Texas billionaire banker Andrew Beale had the same idea. He spent millions pursuing the dream of launching rockets, test-fired engines and built a launch pad in Texas, but found he couldn’t make a business out of it without government contracts. His venture had closed down the year before. My editor consequently rewrote my lead paragraph about Musk, buried that news in the story 16 paragraphs down, and placed it on page 16 of the publication. 
Within a few short years, Musk was launching rockets based on innovative designs and manufacturing processes that would reduce the cost of launching payloads into space. Today, SpaceX has government and commercial contracts to launch satellites, including one with NASA to resupply the international space station with a reusable spacecraft. It is launch business, and employs 3,000. 
Musk is now as close as one can get to a household name. His Tesla Motor electric car company recently released its patents for any company to use “in good faith” to spur green car development. It manufactures about 30,000 cars per year.  
Although it has not made a formal announcement, SpaceX has reportedly chosen a site north of Brownsville as its new launching pad for nongovernment payloads in the wake of Federal Aviation Administration approval. It will be the world’s first privately owned vertical launch site, according to the Brownsville Herald, which reports that SpaceX is buying up land near the site. It beat out more established locations such as the space coast in Florida.
Rockets being sent into orbit can be seen for hundreds of miles and soon residents along Highway 83 and on nearby South Padre Island will be able to watch them. One can imagine increased tourist traffic on U.S. 83 as spectators make their way to watch the rockets lift off. This may be the beginning of Brownsville becoming a “space city” with other like-minded businesses sprouting around it. 
Alan Bean painting at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
By the way, this is not the only space related story found along Highway 83.
Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, was born in Wheeler, Texas.
A Navy test pilot, he was a member of Apollo 12, and first walked on the moon November 19, 1969.
Bean is also an accomplished painter, and is known for his oil paintings of moonscapes.
Highway 83 as it passes through Wheeler is named after him.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)