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Spaceport Looks to Propel Houston's Aerospace Future

Published Jun 10, 2019 by Javier Vargas

As Houston prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission this July, proponents of the local aerospace industry are eager to illustrate how the region continues to innovate in the arena, setting up the next generation of space exploration opportunities here in the Bayou City. 

One example is the Houston Spaceport being established at Ellington Field on the south side of the city. Construction is slated to begin later this month on the first phase of infrastructure at the facility; completion of that $18.8 million initiative is expected in May 2020. 

Arturo Machuca
Arturo Machuca

When fully realized, the spaceport could attract a variety of companies, from satellite developers to space vehicle manufacturers, advocates say. They point out that the Houston facility is unique because it’s in the heart of one of the nation’s largest cities, giving it access to talent and existing companies, not to mention proximity to NASA Johnson Space Center. 

The Partnership had the opportunity to catch up with Arturo Machuca, General Manager of the Houston Spaceport on what this development means for the Houston region’s future as a leader in aerospace and innovation. 

Can you describe your role at the Houston Spaceport and how that fits with the larger Houston Airport System?

I’m the General Manager of the Houston Spaceport.  This facility is part of the department of aviation for the City of Houston (Houston Airport System) which is formed by Bush Airport, Hobby Airport and Ellington. The Houston Spaceport is collocated at Ellington Airport which is a joint use military and general aviation operation. Among our largest tenants we have NASA, Texas Air National Guard, and the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Ellington Field has had a significant role in our nation’s aviation history. Can you talk a bit about its evolution?

Ellington Airport began operations in May of 1917. Our airport is one of the oldest airfields in the U.S. going back to times in which aviation operated under the U.S. Army.  Ellington Airport has had a permanent and very important role in the training of aviators and professionals in all areas.  In 1984 Ellington was part of the Base Realignment and Closure process.  In the same year the City of Houston acquired the facility and has been operating it since then keeping a relevant military, civil and general aviation operation. In 2015 Ellington Airport was licensed under the Federal Aviation Administration-Office of Commercial Space Transportation as the 10th commercial spaceport in the U.S. 

Spaceport Development is underway with significant milestones achieved thus far with great prospects ahead. Significantly, our vision and future remain connected to the training of professionals in aviation and aerospace. We are also focused in unmanned aviation systems, micro satellites among others.    

How did the concept of the Houston Spaceport become a reality?

Houston Spaceport became a reality due to the vision and support we have received from the federal, state and local governments, as well as the Houston community. Couple that with first class existing infrastructure and the perfect geographic location and the license for the Spaceport was granted.  We have plenty of work ahead as we continue to equip our spaceport with facilities which will ensure the relevance of the spaceport.

What sets the Houston Spaceport apart from other FAA-licensed spaceports across the nation?

Without a doubt placement of our spaceport in the middle of a vibrant city with world-class infrastructure and talent. 

When finalized, how will the Houston Spaceport impact the aerospace industry in Houston?

The Houston Spaceport will be a vital facility that will enhance our city’s infrastructure giving us a good head start by pioneering the future landscape in other large metro areas.  Houston will remain a relevant player in the aerospace industry and the Houston Spaceport’s plans will directly contribute to even greater economic success for our entire region. 

The Partnership is leading a delegation to the Paris Air Show this month to commemorate Houston's role in the Apollo 11 mission and discuss the region's aerospace future. Participants include the Spaceport, Rice Space Institute, SpaceCom and Space Center Houston

The Partnership is also hosting a NASA Tour and Panel Lunch event as part of its Regions and Neigbhorhoods program on June 19. Learn more about that event and sign up today. 
 

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A Houston-based company is headed for the Moon this year. Intuitive Machines, founded in 2013, is developing a lunar lander to launch later this fall. The company contracted SpaceX to launch its Nova-C spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket. The company also selected SpaceX for its second lunar mission scheduled for 2022.  The lunar landing later this year is one of many "firsts" for Intuitive Machines. The company was also the first based at the Houston Spaceport's location at Ellington Field.  On this episode of the Small Biz Insider podcast, we talk with Intuitive Machines President and CEO Steve Altemus about his company's upcoming lunar missions, the future of space exploration through public-private partnerships and Houston's strengths in aerospace innovation. Highlights from this episode below. On how upcoming lunar missions are historic The company's upcoming mission to the Moon later this year is the first kind of lunar landing assessment for the U.S. since the Apollo mission nearly 50 years ago. With this robotic landing, Intuitive Machines joins NASA's new era of lunar exploration.  "And so here we are, a small business in Houston Space City, returning the United States to the Moon," said Altemus.  Intuitive Machine's CEO said the second lunar mission next year to land an ice-mining drill on the south pole of the Moon is notable because no government or business has ever touched down on the lunar south pole.  Intuitive Machines is preparing to announce a third mission that’s fully commercial set to fly in 2023.  On opportunities for aerospace development in Houston Altemus said autonomous systems are essential for future of space exploration.  “What we should do here in Houston is we should build things," he said. "Build spacecraft, build drones, build autonomous vehicles and autonomous systems. And I think coupling our industrial nature as a city with the technology prowess of the city - putting those together is really where I think we should attract some businesses.” Intuitive Machine's CEO also noted Houston's significant technical talent in the oil and gas, medical and aerospace sectors, as well as these industries' strong ties to academic institutions.  "Houston isn’t Silicon Valley and shouldn’t try to be Silicon Valley. That community has its own identity." On funding space exploration through public-private partnerships Altemus noted the way government is working now to move into lunar exploration is through these partnerships that incorporate a mix of federal funding with private capital. He said the model NASA is embracing now is "very powerful and it means that the federal space dollar can go that much further with the compliment of private capital.” Small Biz Insider is presented by:    The Small Biz Insider podcast is part of our digital series highlighting entrepreneurs in the greater Houston region who are making a big impact in the small business community. Follow Small Biz Insider through these popular podcast players so you never miss a new episode:  Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Spotify
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