Ellington Field Is Now an Official Spaceport. Why That's No Big Deal

The glorious imagine spaceport.EXPAND
The glorious imagine spaceport.
Photo from Houston Airport System

When it was announced that Ellington Airport was getting a license to become a spaceport this week, Mayor Annise Parker gave a speech that the Houston Chronicle compared to President John F. Kennedy's famed Rice speech in which he announced that the United States was going to the moon. 

"This represents the future of Houston, not just the past," Parker told the audience at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts during the ceremony on Tuesday. 

It all sounded so done and final, with Space City now well on its way to getting a new toehold into the commercialized space industry. A drawing of a re-imagined Ellington field revamps the old World War I training base and the airport will have a sharp new look, complete with futuristic new terminals and hangars built up around the runways where the spacecraft will land. Officials from the city and private aviation companies were on hand to clap as a Federal Aviation Administration rep handed over the license to make it all happen. And now it was happening, according to the officials. But it seems worth pointing out that getting a license to become the nation's tenth designated spaceport is not the same as actually doing space travel things, and it's going to be years before we get close to seeing any actual space flights landing at Ellington. 

Why? Well, the most obvious indicator is the money, or, in this case, the lack of it. The city council signed off on plans to turn Ellington into a spaceport two years ago, but hasn't actually invested much money in the project, which will cost between $48 million and $122 million to get the place ready to actually handle spacecraft landings. So far airport officials have spent less than $750,000 studying the project — including a couple of feasibility studies — and no real funds have been put into actually building the thing. There won't be any money invested until the city actually manages to lure private companies into taking the bait and constructing it.  Either the city is going to have to offer some pretty sweet deals to make this happen or the space tourism industry is going to have to go from being a Ray Bradbury novel to a thing that actually exists.

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This brings us to the second thing that might keep the Ellington spaceport dreams from becoming a reality: Right now there aren't any commercial spacecraft actually flying or taking people into space. Sierra Nevada announced earlier this year that the company plans on using Ellington to land its Dream Chaser, a new craft that looks like a mini-shuttle, but the spacecraft won't start flying until late 2016 at the earliest. On top of that, Sierra Nevada's Ellington agreement may sound like a big deal but the company has the dubious distinction of being the only company that NASA didn't choose to keep working with to develop commercial flights to transport astronauts by 2017, while SpaceX and Boeing both got NASA contracts.

Boeing is also interested in using Ellington but the company hasn't actually sealed a deal to use the airport once it's renovated. If Ellington doesn't pull in companies willing to put in the money to invest in basically transforming the tiny three-runway airport into that magical spaceport shown in the artistic renderings, it won't ever happen. 

Plus, if you look around at the other nine licensed spaceports, they aren't exactly seeing much spacecraft traffic, not even from test flights. Spaceport America was built in New Mexico for more than $200 million. The project had been in the works since the early 1990s and was completed in 2012, but the place costs a fortune to maintain and it's barely been used since it opened. The main tenant, Virgin Galactic, has delayed starting flight operations over and over as the company struggles to build a spacecraft that actually flies and lands the way it's supposed to. Last October, Virgin's VSS Enterprise broke up and crashed during a test flight, destroying the Enterprise and killing a pilot. The crash was a disaster for Virgin, since it translated to a death and the loss of the actual spacecraft and meant Virgin was facing more delays before it would be able to start using the spaceport. It was also almost immediately a funding problem for the spaceport because Virgin was then the only tenant. Within a month of the crash, spaceport officials had to ask the New Mexico legislature for more than $1 million in emergency funds to help Spaceport America survive and stay open until Virgin can even possibly start flying again, which won't be until 2016 at the earliest. 

A spaceport license is no guarantee that Ellington or any of the other spaceports will handle the cool space travel stuff.  Midland secured a spaceport license in 2014, but the spaceport being added onto the tiny Midland airport in West Texas won't even be used for the real spacecraft landings full of space tourists. Even though Midland had to put in about $10 million to get XCOR to build a spaceport there, the company won't launch a spacecraft until next year at the earliest. Despite the money down, when the company finally does start toting tourists into space, it won't be launching from Midland since that corner of West Texas isn't exactly a big tourist spot. 

So yeah, it's really nice that Ellington Field is now the nation's tenth designated spaceport, but we'd be a lot more impressed if being a "spaceport" actually meant something at this point.

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