The FAA-approved plan to build a spaceport at Houston’s Ellington Airport was detailed for local pilots and the press in events Nov. 3 and 4, and AOPA is keeping an eye on developments, working to ensure general aviation is not forgotten.
The Houston Airport System (HAS) was granted an FAA Launch Site License this year, making it the tenth commercial spaceport in the United States. The airport, which served more than 50,000 general aviation operations in 2014, will host reusable space vehicles that launch like traditional fixed-wing aircraft.
A Nov. 4 press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center marked the formal signing of a safety training agreement between NASA and the Houston Airport System, following a Nov. 3 meeting of one of the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapters on the same topic. AOPA Central Southwest Regional Manager Yasmina Platt attended both, and is monitoring the details as the plan proceeds toward construction of facilities. Platt noted that space launch operations will not prompt long-lasting flight restrictions, with launch-related airport closures expected to last just 30 to 40 minutes at a time. The spacecraft will follow standard air traffic control and other procedures upon arrival, and the facility will not conduct vertical launches.
Houston, the first airport host to ink a formal collaboration agreement with NASA, expects significant economic gains in the long term, and Texas lawmakers have passed a few bills to facilitate commercial space infrastructure development. Among them was a $15 million appropriation to the state Spaceport Trust Fund for infrastructure development in 2013.
The Johnson Space Center, for decades a hub of NASA astronaut training, will support HAS and commercial space operations with existing assets, resources, and expertise in safety management. Houston will include that in its pitch to commercial operators like Virgin Galactic and others gearing up to launch civilian payloads and tourists.
Arturo Machuca, general manager of Ellington Airport, detailed the first phase of the development plan during the EAA presentation. That plan includes 90 acres, 1.25 million square feet of building space, and will leverage both public and private investment. Houston Airport System officials expected to close a deal Nov. 5 to purchase an existing Boeing-built facility known as the Houston Production Center on the grounds of Ellington Airport next to the buoyancy lab where NASA has trained astronauts and civilian pilots (including Platt) for years. The $6.9 million purchase was detailed in local media in October following city council approval.
The investment and infrastructure, new tenants, and space operations would be a boon to Ellington Airport, which typically runs up to $4.5 million in the red each fiscal year. The airport is currently subsidized by Houston’s other airports, and local officials have long been looking for ways to boost revenue at Ellington. The spaceport plan is very much a part of that, and expected to create many high-paying technical jobs as well. Houston is already home to several commercial space companies.