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Hopes soar in Fort Stockton; Sagebrush spaceport; Successful rocket launch is aimed at small satellite niche.

by John Tedesco
Metro / South Texas

All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

FORT STOCKTON — One small step for commercial spaceflight was made Saturday when a 12-foot tall test rocket blasted 20,000 feet into the air from a dusty ranch in West Texas.

Amid a practice range populated with rattlesnakes, buffalo grass and curious cattle, flame poured from a narrow rocket that catapulted skyward with the roar of a jet fighter.

The test flight overseen by JP Aerospace, a California company staffed with volunteer space enthusiasts, also raised the hopes of Pecos County leaders who are vying with two other Texas sites to bring a spaceport to their community.

“We’re pretty fired up about it,” said Doug May, who runs the Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport Development Corp.

The prospect of even a modest number of new jobs in an exciting industry has stirred interest in Fort Stockton, a former Army outpost that is now aching for opportunity.

“It’s clearly going to be a significant economic impact,” May said. “But it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Saturday’s launch was the first tangible result in 20 years for Texas’ private space-flight industry, which has made big promises but has yet to take off.

The Pecos County site, just south of Fort Stockton, was a Spartan affair: Mission Control was a GMC van packed with equipment and antennas, not far from an old creaky windmill, and onlookers propped folding chairs to enjoy the view.

But the scenery could get a more modern look. Gene Lyda, whose family built the Alamodome and has deep roots in San Antonio, owns the 325-square mile ranch and could make room for permanent facilities – for a price.

“The ranching business is changing fast,” said Lyda, who allowed Saturday’s launch to proceed free of charge. “We consider ourselves cattle people, but we’re also business people.”

Space shuttles are unlikely to land anytime soon near Fort Stockton, but supporters see a special niche for low-budget space flights that big-name companies have ignored.

JP Aerospace’s owner, John Powell, said his company has a $20 million contract with the U.S. Air Force to put small satellites into orbit and build inflatable surveillance craft that hover near the edge of space.

JP Aerospace paid a $75,000 fee to the local spaceport authority for Saturday’s flight, which could set the stage for a $1.5 million contract with the group for future flights and development.

The last commercial space flight in Texas was 20 years ago on Matagorda Island. The Sept. 9, 1982, launch of the Conestoga I rocket was supposed to put Houston Based Space Services Inc. in competition with NASA.

The launch was the first private space flight in the United States, but eight years and $20 million later, Space Services ran out of money and was bought by another company.

John Pike, an expert in space and defense policy, said the single launch at Matagorda Island shows how quickly private space ventures burn through capital.

He predicted the activity in Fort Stockton won’t last.

“The first commercial launch from Texas didn’t establish Matagorda Island as a competitor breathing down the neck of the Kennedy Space Center,” he said.

Researchers from Texas A&M University were on hand as part of an economic impact study, but they said it was too early to tell what impact a new industry would make in Pecos County.

A crucial question is whether a market exists for small-scale satellites.

“We’re pretty cautious right now,” said program extensions specialist Garen K. Evans. “We just don’t know.”

Powell makes no bones about his small-fry status in the pantheon of U.S. Aerospace companies. In fact, he claims his low-budget approach to space flight will transform the industry.

“We’re an odd bunch,” Powell said of his 50-member company.

A self-described whiz kid who tried winning a billion-dollar NASA contract with his friends as a high school student, Powell sported sneakers, thick glasses and a head of moppy hair as he coordinated Saturday’s launch.

Among the volunteer enthusiasts who keep the company afloat are Powell’s parents, who marveled at the contraptions he made as a student. “Did he tell you about the submarine he built?” asked John Powell Sr. “Yeah, he built a little one-man submarine. We were a little concerned about it going in the pool, though.”

Brett Williams, an aerospace instructor at Fredericksburg High School who watched Saturday’s launch, was happy to see JP Aerospace in Texas, even if the company isn’t the size of Lockheed Martin.

The demands of space flight have created new technology that is now commonplace in society, such as cellular phones, yet the public seldom realizes its importance, Williams said.

“I’m here to support them,” he said. “They’re doing a good thing.”

The new spaceport is called Las Escaleras a las Estrellas, or the Ladder to the Stars.

The rocket launched Saturday was the second stage of the MicroSat Launcher. Company officials hope the fully built, two-stage rocket will be launched from a platform suspended by giant helium balloons 100,000 feet in the sky.

JP Aerospace hopes to earn about $200,000 per launch to put small satellites in low orbit.

The test rocket happened to be launched the same week Russia’s Sputnik satellite achieved orbit 45 years ago on Oct. 4.

Two other sites, in Brazoria and Kenedy counties, have vied for spaceport status. Last year, the Kenedy County site was relocated to nearby Willacy County because residents were sour on the idea.

jtedesco @ express-news.net