Miss on Bezos's Blue Origin Is a Major Blow for Houston's Spaceport

The planned spaceport at Ellington Field will have to get along without Blue Origin.
The planned spaceport at Ellington Field will have to get along without Blue Origin. Image from Houston Airport System
For a second there, it looked like the imagined Houston Spaceport that then-mayor Annise Parker described in glowing terms when the planned project at Ellington Field was awarded a spaceport license in 2015 might have a chance of becoming reality.

Blue Origin, the space company created by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, was considering bringing a rocket manufacturing facility to the planned Houston Spaceport, a move that would have brought in a $200 million investment and jobs for more than 300 people. But the company has gone with a location in Huntsville, Alabama, instead, the place that built the controversial SLS rocket.

The Houston Spaceport bid failed, but not for lack of trying on the part of local officials. Houston Airport spokesman Bill Begley said that the offer Houston Spaceport presented to Blue Origin was "competitive."

The problem was officials at the state and federal levels. Houston City Councilman Dave Martin says that Alabama politicians simply outgunned their Texas counterparts. They wanted it more, worked harder to court the company and subsequently got the deal, Martin told the Houston Chronicle. He pointed to Senator Richard Shelby as the motor behind Alabama's winning the contract.

And really, there's no other explanation that explains why Houston was passed over.

Huntsville and Houston offered many similar things. While we have the Johnson Space Center, Huntsville has the Marshall Space Flight Center. Because NASA is so well established in these areas, both cities arguably offer the right kind of potential skilled workforce and the right general environment.

But while Huntsville had Shelby going to bat for it, Houston lacked a similarly driven senator working to persuade Blue Origin to choose us, a problem we've had ever since Senator Ted Cruz took office in 2012. The junior senator is traditionally the one tasked with working the political angles on NASA and all things space, but even though Cruz is now chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, that has not resulted in any significant wins in Texas for the federal space program or the commercial space industry.

Now it looks as if that lack of political support has resulted in Houston losing out. As we've noted before, the Houston Spaceport will remain a nice idea until the city manages to convince enough private firms to invest in and build the project. (The city doesn't plan on investing any of its own money in doing so.)

That could be a problem, considering the entire commercial space industry is still in a decidedly fetal state of formation at best. The nine spaceports licensed so far still aren't seeing much in the way of spacecraft traffic, not even from test flights. It's unclear when or if the commercial space industry will get going enough to make it truly worthwhile to start investing in and building a gleaming structure (estimated to cost between $48 million and $120 million) like the one the Houston Airport System has planned.

There were hopes that Blue Origin would choose Houston, and that the company's decision would spark an explosion of development for the project, but now it's back to the drawing board.

Houston Spaceport needs a slew of tenant aerospace companies to make the spaceport project viable, but so far it has secured only a single renter.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray