[Via Satellite 07-15-2015] The Houston Airport System (HAS) is looking to position itself at the heart of the space industry as it moves forward with plans to establish a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport (EFD). FAA officials have recently granted HAS a launch site license, which allows the airport to establish itself as a site for horizontal Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs), although the plan to transform the airport into a commercial spaceport — the 10th of its kind in the United States — has been in the works for two years. The launch license and plans for the spaceport do not include vertical launches.
Arturo Machuca, the general manager at Ellington Airport who has led the efforts to set up a spaceport there, told Via Satellite that the concept began taking shape in February 2012 when operation of a commercial spaceport was deemed feasible — although the assessment considered only the technical aspects of the project. Geographic and economic logistics also fell into place to move the project closer to reality as the airport is situated near the Gulf of Mexico with 400 acres of land available for development.
“The infrastructure for RLVs is already in place, with plenty of room for facility expansion and development,” Machuca said.
At a press conference after the announcement, Houston Mayor Annise Parker expressed her support for the project. “If we were to build a new spaceport we think it would look a lot like Ellington. There’s plenty of land, we already have the runways in place, it’s surrounded by that strong aerospace presence, it has the civic infrastructure, the commercial and retail infrastructure and the support of everybody in the region,” she said.
The Houston Spaceport is expected to spur growth in the region and in the space industry at large, possibly creating a focal point for aerospace operations such as the launching of micro satellites, astronaut training, zero-gravity experimentation, spacecraft manufacturing, and a host of other potential activities, including space tourism, according to Machuca.
In its initial plan going forward, HAS is looking to develop the Aerospace Design and Solutions Lab, for which it has budgeted $25 million. While this is coming from HAS, the organization is also working on funding with the private sector, according to Machuca. Federal and state funds may also enter into the project as they become available through grants or incentives.
Machuca noted that it is difficult to predict growth, but said the outcome is looking favorable as launch providers are beginning to show interest in using the airport as a spaceport. “Business opportunities related to the Houston Spaceport are coming to us in what we consider good numbers,” he said.
The Sierra Nevada Corporation is looking to bring its Dream Chaser spacecraft to Ellington and signed a Letter of Agreement in 2014 to work on studies focusing on what it will take to land the manned version of the spacecraft at the Houston Spaceport.
“That partnership grew even stronger in March 2015, when SNC and HAS signed another Letter of Agreement that made Houston Spaceport a potential landing site for the unmanned cargo version of Dreamchaser,” said Machuca.
Interest in commercial space travel is also showing up at the Houston Spaceport. HAS signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last month with Satellite Applications Catapult, a British company that is looking to use the spaceport to develop new services with satellite data created from local U.S. organizations working in partnership with British companies.
“The company has chosen the Houston Spaceport to develop its first U.S. facility with the vision to serve the U.S. and Americas from our strategic location,” Machuca explained.
There is local interest in the spaceport as well. Intuitive Machines, which Machuca described as a homegrown, Houston-founded aerospace and design company, “is working to bring to the Houston Spaceport the assembly production of the drone spacecraft they are developing.” The company is also considering relocating its entire operation to the Houston Spaceport Design and Solutions Lab, the spaceports’ first dedicated facility.
Machuca also noted that the organization is in talks with Integrated Spaceflight Services, and Boeing has shown interest in using Ellington, but deals have yet to be finalized. With Houston as the 10th commercial spaceport in the U.S. and the one with the largest metropolitan area with the infrastructure, Machuca is eager to see how it takes off.
“This is an opportunity to broaden the vision, to connect with many companies that are working on the commercial applications for space exploration and to realize that not all launches into space need to be vertical launches,” said Parker. “We can do horizontal launches and, over time, that is exactly what we expect to have happen.”
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