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Who Gets Left Behind in the Next Space Race?

Who Gets Left Behind in the Next Space Race?
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Illustration by Blake Jones, photo Courtesy of Houston Airport System


Alvaro Chivas-Fernandez Interviews Arturo Machuca of Spaceport Houston


Back in June, the City of Houston joined the Houston Airport System in announcing that Ellington Field will become a licensed commercial spaceport. This means that, even as NASA’s budget continues being cut, private interests will have a place to launch and land spacecraft for those space tourists who can afford it. Free Press Houston was glad to have the opportunity to talk about what this means for those of us left behind with Arturo Machuca and Bill Begley of Ellington Airport.

Houston is the home of the 10th spaceport in the US. What are the intended uses for these spaceports?

Screen Shot 2024-10-14 at 11.43.04 AMSituated near the Gulf of Mexico, and featuring more than 400 acres of land readily available for development, Ellington Airport is tailor-made for the requirements associated with an operating licensed spaceport. The infrastructure for Reusable Launch Vehicles already is in place, with plenty of room for facility expansion and development. Our vision is to continue the development of an even stronger commercial aerospace business community.

Which of these potential uses excites you the most, and why?

We believe the Houston Spaceport will act as an accelerator for innovation and an incubator for growth. As a whole, Houston offers a booming economy with a strong aerospace industrial base, a well-educated workforce with experience in the high-tech demands of space exploration. Houston offers balanced trade with diversified industries. The metropolitan area offers highly diversified industry clusters — energy and petrochemicals, aerospace and aviation, medical and biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology — that fits perfectly with the idea of cultivating the ideas and benefits that have long been a product of the aerospace industry.

Why did New Mexico, Alaska, Oklahoma, Jacksonville, FL, and Midland/Odessa get spaceports before Houston?

The concept of a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport was something discussed for a while, but really began taking formal shape in February of 2024, when it was deemed — purely from a technical standpoint — that operation of a commercial spaceport was feasible. There already are NASA operations at Ellington, and when you consider Houston’s history — its decades-long connection with an existing, robust aerospace community, with NASA and its “Space City” reputation — taking that step is a natural progression.

The Houston Spaceport website reads:

With the Houston application already approved by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the Houston Airport System (HAS) now turns its attention toward securing partnership opportunities with leading companies operating within the aerospace industry.

Could you describe some of these “partnership opportunities” and tell our readers who are the “leading companies” with whom the Houston Spaceport hopes to partner?

Business opportunities related to the Houston Spaceport development are coming to us in what we consider good numbers. We have several opportunities that we can’t discuss in detail because of non-disclosure agreements, but a few examples we can discuss include:

Sierra Nevada Corporation and their Dreamchaser Spacecraft: In 2024, the Houston Airport System and Sierra Nevada Corporation signed a Letter of Agreement 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 2024, when SNC and HAS signed another Letter of Agreement that made the Houston Spaceport a potential landing site for the unmanned cargo version of Dreamchaser.

Satellite Applications Catapult: The international appeal of commercial space travel is growing, and Houston’s growing global profile was strengthened when we finalized our first international MoU with British company Satellite Applications Catapult (Harwell, Oxford). This company has chosen the Houston Spaceport to develop its first U.S. facility. Their vision is to serve the U.S. and the Americas from our strategic location. This document was recorded June 26, 2024.

Intuitive Machines: This is a homegrown, Houston-founded aerospace design and solutions company that is working to bring to the Houston Spaceport the assembly production the drone spacecraft they are developing. In addition Intuitive Machines is considering possibly relocating its entire operation to the Houston Spaceport Design and Solutions Lab, which we are planning to have as the first dedicated facility of the spaceport.

We have ongoing talks with companies such as Integrated Spaceflight Services and others to design and plan the best manner to establish the public-private partnerships that will serve as the foundation to build this project to the levels we envision.

What are some ways in which the Spaceport stands to benefit Houston and its people?

We believe it will help connect Houston even more to the world — an impressive goal, when you consider the city’s already diverse population, diverse economy and established global profile. Connecting the people, the businesses, the economies and the people of the world to Houston is one of the Spaceport’s major goals as we leverage Houston’s potential as a major center of aerospace development and operations. The Houston Spaceport will seamlessly fit into one of the largest international travel infrastructures on the planet.

One of the possible uses for the Spaceport is near-space travel (which, I might say, sounds galactically less exciting than outer-space travel). As I understand, ‘near-space travel’ means that passengers can get somewhere around the globe much quicker than through traditional air travel. How does this differ from what the Concorde used to do?

While the Concorde afforded faster travel to farther distances, it was not readily affordable to a lot of people. This concept, although not ready yet, could become an affordable mode of travel for international passengers, and could become a precursor to industry in this area, further connecting Houston to the global business world. Imagine a sub-orbital commercial flight from Houston to Tokyo in less than 3 hours. As we dip our toe into the new waters of near-space travel, we open up doors to opportunities we could only imagine just a few decades ago. Just as the Wright Brothers “shortened the distance” between points on the map when they invented heavier-than-air travel in 1903, commercial spaceflight promises once more to connect the world in ways only recently unimaginable.

With the price of oil falling, there has been talk about Houston’s economy slowing. Will this affect the Spaceport and its plans?

That is hard to predict. What we can do is put in place the infrastructure that will open up yet another industry that can benefit Houston and the region. It is another avenue in the expanding economic climate of the city and the region, and a more diverse economy can only be a benefit.

Ellington Field is smack dab in the middle of what many would consider an environmental catastrophe. There are families in the area whose next door neighbors are refineries and petrochemical plants. I have to return my used car oil to a specific location, and I imagine that spaceship refuse can’t be too good for the environment. How are Ellington Field and the Spaceport dealing with their environmental “externalities?”

The multi-level process for earning a commercial spaceport license from the FAA included an extensive environmental impact study. After reviewing and analyzing the available data and information on existing conditions and the potential impacts of the spaceport operations, the FAA determined the spaceport operations at Ellington Airport would not significantly impact the quality of the human environment. The full report is available here. Spaceflight operations will be no different than existing aviation activities. Spaceflights departing from Houston Spaceport will take off under existing jet power in the direction of the Gulf of Mexico. The spacecraft will transition to rocket power once it reaches a high altitude over the Gulf of Mexico.

Who pushed the most to bring the spaceport to Houston? Who can we thank/blame? Was it the city, the “leading companies,” or potential researchers?

The Houston Spaceport project was an initiative led by the Houston Airport System, with the full support of the City of Houston, the State of Texas and the Federal government, as well as leaders in the aerospace industry.

What is your reply to critics who might say that, amidst growing income inequality and a shrinking middle class, with cuts to publicly-funded space exploration, this spaceport is just another playground for the rich — little more than a dock for space-yachts?

It’s worth noting that the Houston Airport System is entirely self-sufficient in regards to economic funding and does not draw from the City of Houston’s overall budget in any manner. The three airports within the HAS operation support themselves through fees and charges paid directly by tenants and other airport customers (i.e. parking, concessions, rental agreements, etc). As a result, any expenses associated with the construction and operation of a Houston Spaceport would be covered by the airport system, private sector companies, aviation-related grants and/or a combination of these sources.

We believe that Ellington Airport and the spaceport can become 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 potential space tourism.

Houston is fortunate to be in the space business almost since beginning of the U.S. program so we have a wealth of human resources that include top aerospace scientists, engineers, technicians and all kind of aerospace professionals. We also have a tremendous base of aerospace companies already established in the Houston area. We have one of the strongest economies in our country and a superb infrastructure that includes roadways, rail, seaport, airports and now a spaceport. We also have the crown jewel when it comes to real space — NASA’s Johnson Space Center, located just 4 miles from the Houston Spaceport site at Ellington Airport. This comes with all the intelligence that this first-class space agency offers not only to Houston, but to our nation and the world.

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