Texas’ next giant leap in space

As Texas celebrates the 60th anniversary of NASA’s Johnson Space Center this year, we are reminded of the historic role the state played in pioneering our nation’s space exploration. On the heels of this milestone, the Texas House Appropriations Committee discussed the future of the Texas space economy during its hearing earlier this month. 

Estimated to grow to trillions of dollars by 2050, now is the time to rethink strategic planning to ensure our state continues to play a leadership role in the rapidly expanding commercial space industry.

Texas is uniquely positioned to do just that.

For the last two decades, the Houston-based NASA Johnson Space Center, or JSC, has operated the International Space Station with Texas-trained astronauts from all over the world. However, this space station will be replaced by low-Earth orbit commercial space stations in the next decade. NASA plans to rent out facilities for its astronauts on these new privately run space stations when they are ready.

NASA also recently launched the Orion spacecraft as part of Artemis 1, which is focused on exploring the Moon. JSC intends to begin training astronauts next year to help crew its next mission with Texas-based Axiom Space providing the space suits. 

JSC expects exploration of the Moon to eventually extend to Mars. It will be responsible for curating extraterrestrial samples collected from the planet and returning them to Texas. The collection and eventual study of the samples has propelled designs for the development of next-generation facilities, new technologies, rovers and advanced robotics. 

All of these future space developments present an extraordinary opportunity for Texas to lead the nation and world in human space exploration. 

The Texas aerospace industry currently employs more than 100,000 workers. And the JSC is looking to increase jobs as part of its plan to position Texas as a global aerospace hub with the creation of the Lunar Mars Surface Integration Facility and Exploration Park. JSC believes the creation of this hub will create a pipeline for STEM graduates who will transition into the Texas space economy. 

According to Dr. Vanessa Wyche, director of the JSC, its budget last year put $2.75 billion into the Texas economy and employed a workforce of more than 10,000 NASA workers alone.

With this opportunity for growth comes some challenges that Texas will need to overcome with appropriate planning and guidance from state policymakers. 

Texas faces stiff national and international competition in the latest race for space.

According to William Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, there are currently 77 government space agencies and 16 space programs internationally. Fifty years ago only two existed. Without a master plan or state agency to implement and administer funds where they are most needed, Texas may get knocked out of the race.

Although Texas currently accounts for 10% of the national space economy, it is falling behind when it comes to workforce development and STEM education. 

Texans are not pursuing science and math education or STEM careers at rates necessary to meet current and future demand. According to Dr. Robert Ambrose, professor of engineering at Texas A&M, 10,000 STEM jobs remain unfilled in Texas, a number that is likely to grow if the state fails to address STEM literacy. 

The Texas aerospace industry is concentrated in rural areas of Texas, yet many rural areas still lack access to high-speed internet service. 

There is still a strong digital divide in Texas. Without affordable and reliable access to the internet, either through land or orbital technology, many rural Texans are unable to take advantage of the virtual learning that JSC believes will generate more STEM learning opportunities.

Addressing our workforce, education and connectivity challenges is necessary if Texas wants to maintain a competitive edge in the growing private space industry. 

In the meantime, multiple interested parties at the Appropriations hearing requested state funding — to the tune of $500 million — to assist with the development of a hub of research facilities that will host private companies and university consortium members all focused on Moon and Martian surface exploration in a collaborative environment. This and other policy options will be available for the legislature to consider when it returns in January, shortly after Earth completes another orbit around the sun.

Interested in learning more about the need for a state space plan? Read Texas 2036 President and CEO Margaret Spellings’ op-ed in the Houston Chronicle “Without a Lone Star space plan, Texas will lose its advantage.”