WASHINGTON — The Texas city hosting the newest commercial spaceport in the United States will also be home to a facility one company is building for the development and testing of pressure suits and other space hardware.
An Oct. 27 ceremony at the Midland International Air and Space Port in Midland, Texas, to mark the receipt of a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation also served as a groundbreaking for the Midland Altitude Chamber Complex at the airport.
The 1,635-square-meter facility is being built by Orbital Outfitters, a company developing pressure suits for commercial spaceflight companies. Its customers include XCOR Aerospace, a suborbital launch vehicle developer that announced plans in 2012 to move from Mojave, California, to Midland.
The heart of the complex is a set of three hypobaric chambers of varying sizes that can be depressurized to stratospheric altitudes for the testing of various items of equipment. The largest chamber, 2.4 meters in diameter and 5.2 meters long, can accommodate as many as 10 people or full-scale models of vehicle cabins.
Orbital Outfitters, which is developing the complex with Renton, Washington-based Holder Aerospace, decided to depart from the conventional approach to designing the altitude chambers. “They’re generally steel boxes with a hatch on one end and portholes,” company Chief Executive Jeff Feige said in an Oct. 24 interview.
Instead, Feige said, Orbital Outfitters’ chambers will make extensive use of acrylic in doors and panels, offering transparency. This will make it easier for technicians to see inside the chamber during tests, and also reduce the chances that people inside the chambers will experience claustrophobia.
The chambers also will be able to rapidly depressurize. The large chamber will be able to go from the atmospheric pressure at sea level to pressure at an altitude of 18,000 meters in 15 seconds. A smaller chamber that can accommodate two people in pressure suits can go from sea level to the pressure at 30,000 meters in five seconds. That will allow the company to simulate emergency rapid decompression events.
Construction of the complex will take about a year to complete, Feige said. The company plans to begin operations there in the first quarter of 2016.
While the complex is designed primarily to be used to develop and test Orbital Outfitters’ own suits, Feige said the company is open to allowing others to use the altitude chambers for other projects, such as testing of small satellites. “We’re looking at what else we can do with it,” he said.
Like XCOR, Orbital Outfitters received incentives from the Midland Development Corp., the city’s economic development agency, valued at $6.9 million. The company, which currently has offices here and in North Hollywood, California, will consolidate its operations in Midland.
Attracting companies like Orbital Outfitters is part of a long-term effort by Midland to attract the emerging space industry to the West Texas community. The key element of that effort is receiving a spaceport designation from the FAA for the city’s commercial airport, allowing it to host suborbital launches by XCOR Aerospace.
The airport received its commercial launch site operators license from the FAA Sept. 17, at which time it changed its name from Midland International Airport to Midland International Air and Space Port. The Oct. 27 ceremony was intended to celebrate that license as well as break ground on the Orbital Outfitters complex.
For the groundbreaking ceremony itself, Feige said, the company eschewed the traditional scene of people plowing shovels into the ground. Instead, a local student, wearing a replica of an Orbital Outfitters pressure suit, presented an Apollo-era lunar sample canister to the city’s mayor. “We’re bringing space to Midland,” Feige explained.