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Conestoga launch
Texas hosted the first launch of a privately developed rocket more than 40 years ago but soon lost any first-mover advantage. (credit: Celestis)

Texas Space Commissions, from Conestoga to Starship

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The Lone Star State once again has a Texas Space Commission thanks to a bill signed into law on June 14, 2023, by Governor Greg Abbott.[1] The former Texas Aerospace Commission, which ceased operations in 2003, started out as the Texas Space Commission in 1987, spurred on by the launch of the first commercial rocket into space five years before.[2]

Many today regard that maiden flight as the “Wright Brothers moment” for the commercial launch industry. Texas thus gave birth to a multibillion-dollar industry almost a quarter century before the famous flight of SpaceShipOne in California.

Formerly the domain of governments, space launches became the domain of private enterprise, thanks to a pioneering venture initiated by Houston-based Space Services, Inc. of America. They tested their inaugural rocket Conestoga 1 on the barrier island of Matagorda on the Texas Gulf Coast in 1982, launching from the cattle ranch of illustrious oil man Toddie Lee Wynne.[3] A real estate mogul who founded Six Flags over Texas and brought Tex-Mex food to the nation, he was one of the original owners of the Dallas Cowboys. Fascinated by space, Wynne decided once again to be part of the future by investing in Space Services.[4] Their Conestoga 1 rocket was designed as a low-cost alternative to existing orbital launch systems.

Back in World War II, the Matagorda Island General Bombing and Gunnery Range was one of dozens of Army airfields located throughout the state. It was placed under the Gulf Coast Training Command headquartered at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. But a ranch on the southern end of the island owned by Toddie Lee Wynne and his partner, real estate developer Clinton Williams Murchison, Jr., was never appropriated for the bombing range. Following the war, Wynne and Murchison got into a disagreement over the future of the Matagorda Island spread. They settled the matter by a coin toss that Wynne won, buying Murchison’s share of the ranch.

Toddie Wynne became the first of the billionaires to invest in rockets back when Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk were still in school. The launch of Conestoga I on September 9, 1982, from Wynne’s ranch south of the abandoned airbase turned Matagorda Island into the world’s first commercial spaceport. Unfortunately, on the morning of the launch 85-year old Toddie Wynne suffered a heart attack and died enroute to a Dallas hospital.[5] The company honored Wynne’s memory, as well as his investment, by completing the launch. The Conestoga rocket performed successfully, reaching an apogee of 309 kilometers before it returned to Earth, splashing into the Gulf of Mexico. Many today regard that maiden flight as the “Wright Brothers moment” for the commercial launch industry. Texas thus gave birth to a multibillion-dollar industry almost a quarter century before the famous flight of SpaceShipOne in California.

Following Wynne’s death, Space Services found it difficult to raise capital for their enterprise. The company was also driven from Matagorda Island and their launch site when in 1986 Wynne’s son sold the ranch to the Texas Nature Conservancy, transforming the island into a wildlife refuge. The Texas island where Wynne’s ranch served as the birthplace of the commercial launch industry—and held such vigorous prospects for the future of the space industry in Texas—is now a wildlife preserve where not even automobiles are permitted.

Space Services’ dreams of rocket development ended in 1995 when they tested their newest orbital rocket, the Conestoga 1620, from Virgina’s Wallops Island Launch Facility. That launch ended 64 seconds into its ascent when the rocket exploded. Today the company is still located in Houston but known mostly for its subsidiary, Celestis, founded in 1994 by two former employees of Space Services. Celestis, which merged with Space Services in 2004, offers space burials by sending cremated ashes into space. Since 1997 they have conducted 17 memorial spaceflights on a variety of commercial launch vehicles.[6]

The death of Toddie Wynne cost Texas its chance to be a leader in the commercial launch industry. In 1997, another Texan, Andrew Beal of the Beal Bank in Dallas, stepped into the picture, forming Beal Aerospace to develop a commercial orbital rocket. Finding no location available in Texas to launch the rocket, he searched overseas for a site, first in the British Virgin Islands and then in Guyana. Unable to establish a launch site in either location due to diplomatic problems, Beal closed Beal Aerospace in 2000, but not before investing in the development of a rocket engine test site in McGregor, Texas, where he developed the largest liquid rocket engine since Project Apollo, the BA-810.[7]

Shortly after Beal Aerospace closed, Elon Musk took over the McGregor site and is still using it today to develop engines for SpaceX, including for the new Starship/Super Heavy in Boca Chica, Texas, some 240 kilometers from Matagorda. Nonetheless, SpaceX nearly suffered the same fate as Beal Aerospace after they were forced to leave Vandenberg AFB due to conflicts with the US Air Force. Unlike Beal, SpaceX was fortunate enough to be allowed to test their Falcon I rocket from the US Army’s Reagan Test Site on Omelek Island in Kwajalein Atoll. But the remote location created numerous problems for SpaceX that almost ended its existence, as covered by Eric Berger’s book, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX.[8] If the state of Texas had a coastal spaceport, SpaceX would have likely used it both for testing and operational launches of its Falcon rockets.

Blue Origin launch site
Blue Origin conducts suborbital New Shepard launches from West Texas, but the site is not suited for orbital launches. (credit: Blue Origin)

After Andrew Beal’s aerospace venture, the next Lone Star transplant with rocket dreams was Jeff Bezos. Born in New Mexico but ranch-raised partially in Texas, he bought up hundreds of square kilometers of ranchland near Van Horn in west Texas. Bezos then built the Corn Ranch launch site where his company, Blue Origin, company successfully developed the New Shepard Rocket. On July 20, 2021, the New Shepard carried Bezos and three others into space, the first humans to reach space from Texas soil.[9] I was fortunate enough to see the New Shepard launch by parking on a ranch road about 15 kilometers east of the launch site. Since Corn Ranch is an inland spaceport limited to suborbital launches, Blue Origin was forced to turn to Florida as a suitable coastal launch site for its new orbital rocket, the New Glenn.

I believe the main reason that the first Texas Space Commission failed was due to the lack of a state-operated spaceport to serve as the flagship of Texas’s commitment to the space commerce industry.

Like Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace is another rocket company with Texas roots that would benefit from a coastal launch facility. Currently it is shipping the rockets it builds in Texas to California for launches because Texas has no spaceport that meets the needs of this and other innovative companies that might bring aerospace commerce into the state. A lack of launch sites can only mean a continued loss of space business. The absence of a Texas coastal spaceport for rocket development undoubtedly contributed to the first Texas Space Commission failing to achieve its goals of extending the aerospace industry beyond Houston and the contractors for NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

In 1993, in a move to embrace the burgeoning aviation industry, the first Texas Space Commission was renamed “Texas Aerospace Commission” to expand its powers. When lawmakers proposed a bill to extend the existence of this commission for yet another 12 years it failed to pass, and the Texas Aerospace Commission ceased operations in 2003.

While working for Buzz Aldrin’s Starbooster, Inc, another launch company founded in Texas, I supported the original Texas Space Commission in its search for a state-funded launch site. Unfortunately, none of the three sites that were proposed—Fort Stockton’s West Texas Spaceport, the Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport in Brazoria County, or the South Texas Spaceport in Willacy County—were feasible. Although two launches of sounding rockets took place in 2003 from a ranch in Willacy County near Port Mansfield, the first rockets to reach space from Texas soil since the flight of Conestoga I in 1982, no further efforts were made to develop the South Texas Spaceport.[10] Shortly thereafter, the Texas Aerospace Commission closed its doors.

I believe the main reason that the first Texas Space Commission failed was due to the lack of a state-operated spaceport to serve as the flagship of Texas’s commitment to the space commerce industry. If the new Texas Space Commission doesn’t wish to suffer the same fate as its predecessor, it needs to find a location to build a state operated spaceport capable of orbital launches.

Although Texas is home to five FAA licensed spaceports—Blue Origin’s spaceport near Van Horn, SpaceX’s McGregor site, SpaceX’s Starbase site in Boca Chica, the Midland International Air and Space Port in Midland, and Spaceport Houston at Ellington Field—none of these sites are suitable for attracting the launch companies needed to build the Texas space industry.[11]

Blue Origin’s Corn Ranch spaceport is a private facility limited to vertical suborbital rocket launches as is SpaceX’s McGregor test site. While SpaceX’s private Starbase site on the Gulf Coast at Boca Chica is licensed by the FAA for orbital launches it is unclear, given the numerous attacks on Starbase by environmentalists, if Elon Musk will be able to develop it into an operational spaceport.

A Texas state spaceport will provide both expansion options for existing launch firms and a powerful tool for attracting new launch companies to the Lone Star State.

The state’s two public spaceports, Midland International Air and Space Port and Houston Spaceport, are limited to air-launched systems that are lifted into the upper atmosphere by jet aircraft before being launched into space. Unfortunately, few firms are still pursuing that launch technology, especially after the recent bankruptcy of Sir Richard’s Branson Virgin Orbit, though Branson’s other rocket company, Virgin Galactic, remains in business at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.[12] So, despite having five licensed spaceports, more than any other state, none meets the requirement of the flagship spaceport needed by the Texas space industry. Although Texas has a trust fund that provides grants to support infrastructure construction at spaceports its value is limited if existing facilities in the state are unsuitable for attracting firms seeking to develop or operate vertical orbital launch systems.

A Texas state spaceport will provide both expansion options for existing launch firms and a powerful tool for attracting new launch companies to the Lone Star State. SpaceX is coming up against limits in the number of Falcon 9 launches possible for Florida. Currently SpaceX is looking at developing another launch pad, its third in Florida, to expand both Falcon 9 operations and provide a launch site for Starship/Super Heavy rocket once it is operational. Blue Origin’s New Glenn operations in Florida likely won’t be able to launch as frequently as desired due to the congestion that currently exists at Cape Canaveral. Both firms would no doubt welcome a new launch facility in Texas. Firms like Firefly Aerospace and Rocket Lab, among others, might also be easily persuaded to call the new spaceport home.

If Texas is to achieve its space dreams and become the leader in space commerce, the number one priority of the new Texas Space Commission should be to establish a Spaceport Texas as the flagship of the new Texas Space Strategy.


  1. Henrikson, Eric (June 14, 2023), Texas Space Commission launches; how it could benefit local aerospace businesses. Retrieved from KXON on March 8, 2024.
  2. Texas Sunset Advisory Commission (2003). Texas Aerospace Commission. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  3. Celestis (2024). The launch of Conestoga 1. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  4. Peppard, Alan (December 18, 2018). Reach for the stars, Toddie Lee Wynne’s Matagorda Island entered the space age with the world’s first privately funded space launch. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  5. UPI Archives (September 9, 1982). Oilman Toddie Lee Wynne, oilman and investor in a pioneer rocket-launching company. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  6. Celestis (2024). Celestis History. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  7. Clark, Stephen (October 24, 2000). Beal Aerospace ceases work to build commercial rocket. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  8. Berger, Eric (2021). Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX. William Morrow, New York.
  9. Foust, Jeff (July 20, 2021). Blue Origin launches Bezos on first crewed New Shepard flight. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  10. Midland Reporter-Telegraph (May 4, 2003). Rocket set to launch from South Texas next week. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  11. Federal Aviation Administration (2022). U.S. Spaceports Map. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.
  12. Roulette, Joey (April 4, 2023). Nranson's Virgin Orbit files for bankruptcy after launch failure squeezed finances. Retrieved on March 8, 2024.

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