It's official. NASA is backing the Houston Airport System's efforts to transform Ellington Airfield into a shiny, new spaceport.
“The Johnson Space Center represents an invaluable asset for the entire City of Houston and especially for those of us who are working to establish Houston spaceport as a force within the aerospace industry,” Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz says. “One of the primary reasons why the City of Houston made such perfect sense as the site for the nation’s 10th commercial spaceport is the existence of strong intellectual capital at JSC and the willingness of their leadership team to form substantive partnerships.”
Back in July, it was announced with fanfare and celebration that Ellington Airfield had managed to secure a license to become a spaceport, the 10th licensed spaceport in the United States. It was a big deal, complete with a speech from Mayor Annise Parker that the Houston Chronicle compared to President John F. Kennedy's famed Rice speech. A drawing showed the old World War I training base and airport re-envisioned as a cutting edge spaceport, complete with runways for the commercial spacecraft to land, and the whole thing sounded so nice and final that it almost seemed like it was a done deal. Almost.
As we pointed out then, the fact of a license does not guarantee that Ellington will ever actually become the spaceport so lovingly envisioned in the artist's rendering.
One of the main issues is the question of funding. Even though the city council signed off on plans to turn Ellington into a spaceport two years ago, city officials haven'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. If that never happens then there probably won't be a spaceport, simple as that.
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However, the Houston Airport System has gotten a little closer to making the project a reality by cutting a deal with NASA. It's not for money — after all, NASA's federal budget can barely cover the things NASA is trying to do — but it does give the airport system something almost as valuable: a way to tap into the NASA brain trust. Under an umbrella agreement, which was announced Wednesday, NASA will support Houston's spaceport dream, providing the airport system with access to Johnson Space Center's space assets, including things like safety-specific training, facilities, and technology capabilities, to support suborbital operations and commercial spaceflight endeavors.
The deal with the federal space agency gives Houston's spaceport a little extra oomph of plausibility. There are currently nine other licensed spaceports in the United States but the commercial space industry isn't exactly booming. However, if it ever does get busy, being affiliated with NASA could only help Ellington stand out from the crowd.
The agreement between NASA and Houston Airport System means that NASA will provide NASA-level safety training, something that those in the commercial marketplace won't have access to, according to the release. Not only is the NASA safety training designed specifically for aerospace (go figure) but the training the Johnson Space Center instructors also provide training on the causes and outcomes of aerospace accidents and incidents which is not available from other sources.
It's not cash money, but it's something.