Chasing a Dream

10-1 Spaceport - 1Proposal to transform Ellington Airport into a spaceport gets huge boost

By Rod Evans

Space travel requires enormous amounts of money, technological savvy and cooperation among countless entities, including rocket engine developers, space craft manufacturers and component builders, which explains why any space mission demands that all of the people, companies and government agencies involved work together with one goal in mind: to send humans into space and bring them back home safely.

April’s signing of an agreement between the Houston Airport System (HAS) and the Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) to partner to explore the possibilities of developing a spaceport at Ellington Airport marks the beginning of a new era in the long history of Houston’s involvement in space exploration.

“The Sierra Nevada Corporation believes as we believe in the potential of the spaceport and the future of aerospace aviation,” HAS Aviation Director Mario Diaz said during the press conference held at Rice University’s Bioscience Research Collaborative building to announce the signing.

The agreement calls for exploring a master plan for designing a spaceport at Ellington to accommodate the return from low Earth orbit of Sierra Nevada’s groundbreaking spacecraft called the Dream Chaser. While the agreement doesn’t include a schedule for flights or even discuss financial considerations, it does put into motion the process that could someday result in Ellington, which opened in 1917, serving as the nation’s ninth spaceport.

SNC’s Space Systems division designs and manufactures manned and unmanned spacecrafts, satellite subsystems and components and propulsion technologies. The company has supported more than 450 missions and has partnered with NASA on over 70 science missions and 12 trips to Mars.

Headquartered in Sparks, Nev. and founded in 1963, SNC is one of a small cadre of private companies engaged in advancing the modern model of space exploration, which includes private companies working with NASA to send passengers into space. SNC’s Space Systems division developed the Dream Chaser spacecraft, a seven-crewed craft capable of landing at the spaceport directly from low-Earth orbit. It has been under development for the past nine years and successfully completed its first autonomous flight last fall at California’s Edwards Air Force Base and is scheduled to make its first orbital flight in 2016.

“We think of ourselves as the next generation transportation system. It’s more like an efficient SUV for space,” said Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada’s vice president of space systems. “The Dream Chaser is not fictional; it’s on the horizon. It can land virtually anywhere because all it needs is the same (length) runway needed to land a 737.”

The spaceport project has been discussed for several years now, and last year the HAS commissioned a feasibility study to determine what it would take to transform a large portion of Ellington Airport into a spaceport. Houston City Council members approved the concept last summer and Diaz says the official application to secure the spaceport designation from the Federal Aviation Administration should be ready to be submitted this summer. The port could play a role in supporting vehicles used to service the International Space Station or could be a base for potential space tourism companies.

Diaz, who joined the HAS in 2010 after serving as the deputy general manager for Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, says the agreement between the HAS and SNC takes the idea out of the realm of science fiction and closer to reality.

“When I arrived here, I immediately discussed the spaceport concept and at first I was timid about bringing the idea forward. My staff probably thought, ‘The heat has gotten to him.’ But the idea has taken root and proven itself and people are starting to believe,” Diaz said. “Houston has unique advantages over other emerging spaceport locations with significant access to an existing, robust aerospace community. This letter of intent will allow us to effectively assess and define the new markets and applications that could emerge from having a Houston-based portal to space, which will drive enterprise, economic growth and create jobs and prosperity in this area.”

The agreement also includes involvement by Rice University’s Space Institute, which will provide a broad, big picture look at the logistics involved in developing the spaceport.

“The Space Institute has been working with the spaceport since the inception of the idea trying to work on a master plan to determine what’s feasible,” said David Alexander, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the Space Institute. “Our job is to look at the industries and needs of the commercial space industry and how best to utilize those needs for Houston and the rest of the country. We’ll bring enthusiasm and ideas from the university system to bear on the best use of the spaceport.”

Bringing the spaceport to Ellington could provide a massive shot in the arm for an aerospace industry stung by recent workforce reductions triggered by the shuttering of the Space Shuttle program. Diaz says the prospect of bringing high paying jobs to the area is one of the practical reasons why the concept is so important.

“The spaceport is as much about economic development as space travel,” Diaz said. “It will attract companies who want to participate in the project, and that means more jobs. The master plan includes nearly half a billion dollars in construction at Ellington and we’re not interested in building all of that. We’re interested in creating the critical mass of companies that would bring us to the tipping point where the private sector would come in and see potential here and invest their capital and join forces with us.”

The Dream Chaser spacecraft provides the catalyst for taking the concept from the idea phase to reality. Considerably smaller than the now retired Space Shuttle, the craft was initially developed by NASA in the late 1980s as a vehicle that could be used as a rescue vehicle for the International Space Station. When that project was scrapped by NASA, SNC took it over and began developing the Dream Chaser. The craft, which would be launched via rocket from another location, would be able to land at Ellington, a feat that would, according to SNC’s Sirangelo, give the Houston area something it’s never had despite its long history as a hub for the space program: the ability for area residents to actually witness a spacecraft returning to Earth.

“We thought, ‘What can we do to spark interest in Houston after some dark times in the space program?’ For all the work done in Houston in the aerospace industry, the one thing that hasn’t happened is the space program hasn’t returned here. We have the right vehicle at the right time and in the right way to do that. Why not bring the vehicle home and land it in Houston? It would also help us reach out to young people to come see America’s space program in real life,” Sirangelo said. “We can create inspiration for students to say, ‘I want to take a chance. I want to build something.’ We’re proud to sign this agreement to work together and share information to see what’s possible and what we can do to bring the concept along further.”

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