HOUSTON — The Federal Aviation Administration granted a spaceport launch site license to Ellington Airport, officials with the Houston Airport System said Tuesday.
The license allows Ellington to be used as a launch site for reusable launch vehicles. Houston Airport officials have said the site would be used for commercial space planes to ferry passengers from Houston to places such as China in record times.
Ellington is just east of Interstate 45 and south of Beltway 8, about six miles east of Friendswood.
“Houston has been at the forefront of aviation history and innovation for decades,” Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz said. “Not only does this opportunity reinforce an already long-established connection with the aerospace industry, it offers Houston an opportunity to strengthen its reputation as a forward-looking city and leader in creating high-tech, next-generation type jobs.”
The announcement was a bit of good news for a fledging commercial space industry.
“This is a look at the future,” Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell said. “We’re now in the process of developing aircraft that will take you from Houston to New York in 30 to 40 minutes, or to Europe in about an hour and half.”
Landing the spaceport, Mitchell said, will help lure the commercial space industry to the Houston area.
Unlike other spaceports, which are designed to launch rockets, Ellington’s will be a hub for a new generation of yet-to-be-built spaceplanes.
The planes would take off from Ellington and once over the Gulf of Mexico ascend into the lower reaches of space, making travel to distant destinations quicker.
“That (certification) tells new upstart commercial space companies that we’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “We are the location to bring your company for the commercialization of space. We want to develop a commercial space cottage industry here in Houston.”
Jeff Carr, the president of Griffin Communications Group, agrees. His Seabrook-based firm represents dozens of space contractors and commercial space companies.
“Commercial developers have made tremendous progress not only in helping NASA to meet its needs with cargo and crew, but also developing more ways for more people to reach space for more purposes, whether it’s research, science or commercial,” Carr, a former NASA and United Space Alliance communications director, said. “Houston is in a very strong position to take a lead in developing cutting-edge space applications in a wide variety of areas; transportation, shipping, aerospace, energy, biotech and academia,” Carr said. “The question is, what do you do when you get there (to space)? That is what’s going to integrate space into our economy.”
Even before Tuesday’s announcement, airport officials had established a partnership with Sierra Nevada Corp. to make Ellington the primary landing site for the company’s Dream Chaser spacecraft.
The folding-wing Dream Chaser spacecraft would launch from Florida, with hopes of ferrying supplies and medical and life science projects to the International Space Station or other low-orbit destinations.
It would make its horizontal landing at Ellington Field. The unmanned spacecraft would carry pressurized and unpressurized cargo on flights, and land on a runway at the Ellington spaceport. The Dream Chaser also could ferry humans to and from space, the company said.
Spacecraft takeoff and landings would not be the only use for the Ellington Airport site, officials said. There are also plans to develop space technology research at the airport, which is just a few miles from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
That could mean a new generation of astronauts living in the region, said Cindy Harreld, president and CEO of the Clear Lake Area of Chamber of Commerce. She called the announcement “stellar” news.
“You think of the next generation of astronauts, we’re home to Mission Control, and now we are leading the way in the next generation of space travel,” she said. “The spaceport will bring jobs to the Ellington area and to the aerospace industry as a whole.”
The spaceport announcement was gratifying for John Martinec, the CEO of AeroSys LLC and the president of the Ellington Field Task Force. The Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership created the task force in 2003 to help keep the 147th Texas Air National Guard F-16 squadron at Ellington.
The fighter jets have flown off, but the task force secured Ellington as a joint reserve base that is home to the Army, Air Force, Air National Guard, Marines, Navy and the operations center for the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We went from having 1,500 (military personnel) at Ellington to zero to now more than 7,000,” Martinec said. “I think everyone agrees that what we pulled together to keep the F-16s here was the catalyst for the strong military presence we have there now.”
In the airport system’s pitch to get the spaceport designation, Diaz pushed Ellington’s strong military presence and proximity to Johnson Space Center.