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Space City and the Spaceport


By Ryan Clark

During a speech extolling mankind’s admirable proclivity to strive against all odds, the President culminated by asking rhetorically, “Why does Rice play Texas?!”  To the crowd gathered at Rice Stadium, he then turned to the core of his intent: sending a man to the moon and returning him back safely before the decade was out.  It’s the speech that launched a thousand slide-rules, one so widely known that Jack Kennedy’s Boston brogue cuts right through the decades direct to our collective memory.

He said those words right here, in Space City.

Just under seven years later, the first word Man said on the moon was “Houston.”  Three years later, “Houston” was also the last.

Space City kept up her fast clip as Mission Control for the Shuttle program.  It was the first vehicle designed to go to space, do a thing, come back again, and then do it over again.  However fantastic at first, anything lather, rinse, repeat can lose its wonder.  Time passes.

One day, news broke that a NASA engineer’s wife killed their five children in a bathtub.  Then, overhead in our clear blue sky, on a February day so beautiful that it twisted the knife, the worst possible thing happened yet again.

The shuttle program went on to be cancelled. Hostages were taken in the Johnson Space Center. An astronaut may or may not have donned diapers and drove from Houston to Orlando to do something nefarious.  Mostly she just earned NASA and Space City more infamy that it didn’t need.

When STS counted her last mission(135), Discovery, Atlantis, Enterprise and Endeavor were doled out to museums.  Not one ended up in here.

There have been three new sports franchises in town since the last time a team was aerospacially named. The two most winningest in that honored mnemonic tradition, the Comets and the Aeros, aren’t even around anymore.

As the mayoral campaigns like to point out, there is a lot to like about Houston’s trajectory, to say nothing of the national media fawning of late.  We’re the Energy Capital.  We’re The Medical Center.  We’re those Great Restaurants.

But really, are we Space City anymore?

On September 4th of this year, Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz laid out a plan to transform sleepy Ellington field into the centerpiece of a commercial Spaceport.  Speaking at the annual meeting of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry trade group, Diaz outlined the City Council-approved plan for the Houston Airport System to begin the federal spaceport permitting process.

Houston’s vision is for a vertically oriented business environment, with universities and private interests providing a base of aerospace research and design just up the block from manufacturers and commercial spaceflight operators - all within an Estes Rocket flight of the Johnson Space Center.

But the star of this show was more Galleria than Clear Lake. In a series of flyover animations (whose only improbable notion is the idea that there might one day be commuter rail service outside the Beltway), the Ellington Spaceport Terminal makes clear its intent to be the second most recognized building in the city (tear it down or not, nothing will overtake the Dome).

The design is swooping and elegant, and like Sir Patrick Stewart’s more luxurious Next Generation Enterprise, there isn’t a single straight line, angle, or flat exterior surface.  Odds are better than a Telephone Row ten-line that interior will share many design elements with the good Captain’s bridge: wood trim, leather seats, touch-screen displays, brushed nickel accents and floor to ceiling windows facing boldly forward.

Step away from the terminal, though, and this vision of Ellington is recognizably airport in nature.  It has surface parking, arrival and departure levels, and jetways leading out to winged aircraft.  This isn’t the sort of infrastructure one might expect when launching microsatellites, or trying to steal orbital heavy-lift business away from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.  And it isn’t.

This vision of Ellington’s future has a very different kind of business in mind: space tourism.

Just past the main entrance to Ellington Field at Old Galveston Road, where a fading sign advertising hanger space for lease overshadows the airport marquee itself, rests the craft known officially as NASA 930.  Posed forever at the moment of takeoff and topped fittingly with a Marvin Zindler slime-green cap of mold, this converted ex-Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker is more widely known by her affectionate nickname: The Vomit Comet.

Fixed wing and painted white, NASA 930 looks like an old, small airliner whose owner wouldn’t even spring for windows, let alone liveries.  When performing a series of aerial maneuvers roughly paralleling the opening moments of a roller coaster, NASA 930 could simulate just shy of 30 seconds of weightlessness before pointing her nose up and starting the cycle again. Over and over.  More than 58,000 times during her career. Nausea was in no short supply.

Space tourism is in many ways the spiritual child of the Vomit Comet.  First, it’s part of the overall trend in the US space industry’s shift away from government owed assets towards commercial enterprise. The same microgravity simulations that NASA 930 once conducted are now contracted out to a plane owned by the Zero Gravity Corporation.

Second, most space tourism will involve reusable aircraft that take off and land horizontally like planes. As with roller coasters and Vomit Comets, these will be round-trip jaunts without a port of call. There is no option for a layover on the International Space Station—think three hour tour rather than five day Caribbean cruise.

Finally, it’s true that life-changing views of our Pale Blue Dot will be a highlight of the trip and the visual for every advertisement. But just as with the 930, zero-g is a core and fundamental purpose for space tourism.  Floating weightless. In space. A once in a lifetime experience.

The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, bought himself a week in orbit at the reported cost of $20 million.  Tickets for Virgin Galactic’s upcoming suborbital flights are $250,000 for weightless time measured in minutes.   Even as time and technology bring down the price, this is an experience that may always be metered in the tens of thousands of dollars per hour.

And space tourism trips are destined to always be short.  While technology could someday allow for escapes with hours of weightlessness, eventually scheduling will run up against a key limitation: People need to poop.  Sure, folks won’t hesitate to learn the ins and out of dealing with nausea, and fasting the night before is not much to ask.

Answering Jupiter’s call in zero-g, on the other hand, will almost certainly be a galaxy too far away.  As Mary Roach points out in the diligently researched and delightfully penned Packing For Mars, the entire human process of going to the bathroom is hopelessly dependent on gravity.  Solids and fluids don’t go where they need to, and tend to start floating around the ship until they get stuck on someone else’s visor.

The bottom line here is until the same sort of sci-fi gravity plating that makes the Star Trek mini-skirt possible is implemented, doing the business in space is going to involve catheters, scary noisy vacuums and a whole lot of nope nope nope.  Space trips, in other words, are only going to last as long as the average person can hold it.

When an experience is short and expensive, it follows that it must also be premium to be successful.  Competitive spaceports will draw from a global elite, especially in the coming decades. Space is the destination, but the destination from which to reach the stars will play heavily into the decision making process.  Make no mistake, getting these cashtronauts to blast off from Houston will fill rooms at the Derek, shopping bags at Prada and tour trolleys at the Space Center.  But there’s more at stake here - can this plan keep Houston’s claim to the Space City title alive?

According to the FAA, there are currently eight licensed Commercial Spaceports in the United States.  That is to say, if Kendrick Lamar, Amy Poehler and Bobby Heugel decide to go hang out in space together, they have options.

Some, like the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority’s Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport, are as all-business as their name: no suborbital fun stuff.  Others, like the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation’s Kodiak Island footprint, might be a bit too remote (exception: glacier cruise, hang out with bears, fly around in space vacation triple punch.) One, the Website-Under-Construction Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, has the misfortune of trying to drum up business for launching rockets from the unfortunately named town of Burns Flat.

Midland, which an old oil patch legend boasts was once the private planes per capita outright capital of the world, has thrown its hat in the ring and applied for a permit.

Houston’s only appreciable existing competition for low-orbit space tourist jaunts is not exactly a transit hub.  In fact, it’s located in the center of a string of two lane highways that connect Roswell, the test site for the first atomic bomb, the Hollywood sci-fi location-bait Very Large Array radio telescope, and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.  Even El Paso is a shorter drive to it than Heisenberg’s Albuquerque.

It’s named Spaceport America, which seems like something that we should have voted on.  Real talk Spaceport America, why aren’t you called the Roswell Spaceport?  In all seriousness, the tinfoil hat crowd is your core early adopter, and those folks often seem possessed of money to spend on things.  Things like space nerd vacation packages in the Land of Enchantment.

Spaceport America (ugh), is rather impressively sculpted into the thirsty cowboy countryside that surrounds it. Its terminal rises from the scrub brush plain onto a gleaming circular tarmac, reaching out with a single thin radial to a runway balanced on the perpendicular.  From above, it combines the geometric playfulness of crop circles with the etched-in-stone grandeur of Peru’s Nazca Lines.  It looks great, like a future you want to be a part of.

It’s also the only port of call of Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that boasts successful test flights and several hundred customers with money down for tickets. As recently as May, Sir Richard Branson, the bearded billionaire behind the British Virgin brand (Spaceport America?) claimed the first flight was going to be on Christmas Day this year.

It will be at least a decade before Drake can crow a verse about outer-space honeys he met blasting off in the 281. That gives Spaceport America (#yolo #swag) quite a head start.  And it will need it.

By the time the Ellington Spaceport closes the hatch for its first departure, it’s entirely possible that the first pioneering, yet boring, wave of venture capitalists, petro-royalty and sports franchise owners will help bring the cost of space tourism down and make it affordable to an ever broader slice of the global 1%.  Increasingly, space tourists are going to be household names previously featured in the pages of People magazine. Celebrities.  People who need their presence and their consumption to be conspicuous.   Where better to show some profile than here, visiting space in between a morning sunbath at the Zsa Zsa’s pool and dinner at Oxheart.

Literal moon-shot feats of engineering and scientific research has always given Houston the right to claim aerospace chops, but that alone has never been why we’re Space City.  Houston is Space City because a President stood in our stadium and said we were going to the moon, so we did, and then hosted a Superbowl in that same coliseum just for good measure. Houston is Space City because when there was a Problem, we were the voice on the other end that got all three of those astronauts home safely.  It’s cultural touchstones like these that gave us the cache to not just claim the title, but own it (ATTN: Spaceport America).

Yet with a moniker so ostensibly about the future, the city can’t rely on the past. A Spaceport has the real potential to knock a bit of dust off the Space City image and imbibe it with some of the current Clutch City optimism and Syrup City swagger.  Yes, that probably means more spoiled pop stars bringing their circus to town on pleasure, not business.  But at least we can say “Space City did our part:  We launched ‘em into orbit.”








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