Can a city spaceport keep Houston in the space race?
Tom Dart in Houston
Famously the home of NASA’s Mission Control, Houston is struggling how to stay relevant to modern spaceflight. Is a new spaceport the answer?
Render of the projected Houston spaceport terminal – Image: Plane-site
Houston has a long and proud connection with space exploration. It is home to the Johnson Space Center, the NASA hub best known for hosting Mission Control. But as the US government squeezes NASA’s budget and cedes much of its work to private industry, high-profile tycoons such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson are generating most of the buzz around the future of American spaceflight. And they are elsewhere.
In an attempt to stay relevant, Houston is transforming its 101-year-old Ellington airport into a major spaceport. “It keeps the city at the cutting edge of space and maintains it as Space City USA,” said Mario Diaz, director of aviation for the Houston Airport System, which manages Ellington and the city’s two major passenger airports, George Bush Intercontinental and Hobby.
“In 2010 there was a decision made by the US government to get out of the financing of low Earth orbit, the missions to put up satellites and things like that. What we’ve been doing over the last eight years is transitioning from a government-led space programme to a commercially driven space programme.”
Musk and Bezos have set up shop in other parts of Texas. Musk’s SpaceX is building a launch site by the border with Mexico, while Bezos’s Blue Origin has a launch facility in the remote west of the state. In a sign of the competition between cities and the importance of political lobbying and financial incentives, Houston lost out to Huntsville, Alabama, last year when Blue Origin was deciding where to place a new manufacturing plant.
Houston’s spaceport has struggled for lift-off, but last month the city council approved spending almost $19m on infrastructure development such as roads and utilities. That is a fraction of the public money lavished on Spaceport America, the country’s best known commercial spaceport, which has been subsidised by New Mexico taxpayers to the tune of more than $200m. Branson’s Virgin Galactic is based there, near the vast White Sands Missile Range military testing ground. It will charge space tourists $250,000 for a few minutes of weightlessness 62 miles above terra firma. Last month Branson said the company’s long-awaited first voyage beyond Earth’s atmosphere was imminent.
It’s hardly the first risky futuristic endeavour in the flat and empty desert of southern New Mexico – where, after all, the first atomic bomb was tested. But it is not a convenient location for visitors. The nearest city to Spaceport America of any note, Las Cruces – population a shade over 100,000 – is more than 50 miles away.
By contrast, with about 7 million people, Houston is the fifth biggest metropolitan area in the US, and Ellington is only 17 miles south-east of the city centre. The suburban location makes big, booming, smoke-billowing, vertical heavy rocket launches out of the question. But lower-risk horizontal launches are feasible: an aircraft can be over the Gulf of Mexico in seconds.
If Houston’s spaceport thrives, it is likely to resemble a technology campus with a runway attached. It would be an aerospace incubator where companies and academic institutions can develop products and skills; a research and development community rather than a host for headline-grabbing launches for big tech companies.
As a concept this lacks the drama, daring and wonder associated with space exploration in the popular imagination. But it might be the most viable and valuable way forward for the fledgling American commercial spaceflight industry. And a similar formula may be on the horizon in Colorado. The US’s 11th federal spaceport licence was granted in August to Front Range airport, only a couple of miles from Denver international airport.
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