Houston Spaceport
While Houston has ambitious visions for a spaceport at the present-day Ellington Airport, the focus for now is on establishing facilities to host aerospace businesses. Credit: Houston Spaceport

HOUSTON — Commercial spaceports are increasingly portraying themselves as centers of economic development, including those without any launch activity.

This increased focus of spaceports as part of broader aerospace and other industry development strategies was on display at the Nov. 19 meeting here of the Global Spaceport Alliance, a spaceport industry group whose members include a number of proposed and even licensed facilities that have yet to host a launch.

A case in point is Houston Spaceport, the name given to the spaceport activities at Ellington Airport in Houston. The airport, run by the Houston Airport System, received a launch site operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2015, although the facility has yet to host a launch or reentry, and is unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future.

That’s an intentional decision, spaceport officials said. “We determined that there were too few players, in terms of operators,” said Arturo Machuca, general manager of Ellington Airport and Houston Spaceport. “We decided we were not going to build our business case immediately around operations.”

Instead, the purpose of the spaceport is “to build a focal point for aerospace innovation,” he said, such as development of facilities to host companies like Intuitive Machines, a company working on commercial lunar landers. Other non-space companies at the spaceport include one building UAVs and another that announced plans in September to establish an aviation training center there.

The spaceport is in the midst of “phase 1” of development of 165 acres at the spaceport, building infrastructure like roads and utilities that could host additional companies. “We invite and attract companies to come to the Houston Spaceport and help build that cluster of aerospace and aviation companies,” he said.

That approach turns the spaceport into something of a business park, but Machuca said that could not have happened without getting an FAA license that showed the capability to one day host launches. “The economic impact that we’re seeing is now tangible. It’s making a difference,” he said. “It would not have been possible without Houston Spaceport being recognized and licensed as an operational spaceport.”

That’s a message that can work for other spaceports. “We have to be telling the story to the general public on how spaceport infrastructure is going to be nothing but a win-win for them,” he said. “It all goes back to equipping the city with that infrastructure that will allow for them to be part of this business.”

Prospective spaceports, though, need to fit into the broader economic devleopment goals of their host area. “In order to be successful, it cannot be in isolation,” said Vernon McDonald, senior vice president for strategic solutions at KBR. “The success of the spaceport has to be tied to the economic development plans for your city, state, region. If space is not featured in their economic development strategic plan, you have a problem because you cannot go it alone.”

That model is being used elsewhere, by spaceports large and small. The biggest example is in Florida, where Blue Origin and OneWeb Satellites have built factories just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center as Space Florida, the state’s space development agency, works to attract more users to the area.

On a far smaller scale is Colorado Air and Spaceport, the former Front Range Airport outside Denver that received an FAA license in 2018 but, like Houston, has not hosted any launches. David Ruppel, director of the spaceport, said he’s had some success attracting companies, like Reaction Engines, that want to do engine testing there, and is working on a spaceport master plan to guide future development.

That space activity, he added, has helped grow more conventional aviation activities there as well. “When you do something with space, it doesn’t preclude the other activities. The two things are very easily integrated,” he said.

Both Colorado and Houston retain aspirations for hosting launch activity, primarily in the form of horizontal takeoff and landing vehicles, including for suborbital point-to-point travel. “We do believe, without hesitation, that point-to-point transportation will become a regular way of traveling,” Machuca said, but added he didn’t know when those capabilities would be ready.

In the meantime, Houston Spaceport will focus on economic development, including the ancillary businesses it supports. Machuca said that, with plans for an aviation safety training center there, he’s received inquiries from hotel chains interested in building a hotel nearby for the customers of that center.

“Arturo is not finished until we see an Applebee’s and a Starbucks at the spaceport,” quipped McDonald.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...