Foust Forward | How to succeed in spaceports without really launching

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For most people, the term “spaceport” conjures up visions of launch pads and gantries, with rockets taking off vertically. Some expand that vision to spaceplanes, taking off from or gliding back to a landing on runways. In either case, it involves vehicles departing to, or returning from, space.

But for some, spaceports are becoming a place where businesses, rather than rockets, take off. A case in point is Houston Spaceport, also known as Ellington Airport. The airport received a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2015, but has yet to host a launch or a landing and has no prospects for doing so for the foreseeable future.

But the Houston Airport System, which runs Houston Spaceport along with the city’s two major commercial airports, doesn’t see that as a problem. “We determined that there were too few players, in terms of operators,” said Arturo Machuca, general manager of the spaceport, during a meeting last month of the Global Spaceport Alliance in Houston. Instead, he said the spaceport is intended to “build a focal point for aerospace innovation.”

From that perspective, Spaceport Houston is a success. The site has already attracted aerospace companies, including lunar lander developer Intuitive Machines. Earlier this fall, Flight Safety International announced it would build a 125,000-square-foot aviation training facility at the spaceport, part of the spaceport’s initial phase of development that offers 165 acres to aerospace companies.

Other would-be spaceports are taking similar approaches to attracting business without launches. Midland International Air and Space Port got an FAA license, and changed its name, in 2014, expecting to host suborbital spaceflights by XCOR Aerospace. XCOR, though, went out of business, and no one else expressed an interest in launching from there. The hangar XCOR used there is now home to Avellan Space Technology and Science, which is using it to build smallsats.

Colorado Air and Space Port, formerly Front Range Airport outside Denver, received its license in 2018 despite concerns that launch activity there could interfere with flights at nearby Denver International Airport. While the spaceport still expects to one day host launches, its focus for now is on companies that want to do rocket engine testing and other activities.

Those successes appear to be encouraging others to pursue spaceports despite the lack of launch customers. Among those attending the Global Spaceport Alliance meeting were officials from places like Hancock County, Mississippi; Waco, Texas; and Yuma, Arizona, all of whom were in early phases of spaceport planning and undeterred by the lack of launch activity at other, licensed spaceports.

So why go through all the effort of getting a spaceport license — a multiyear process that often requires extensive, and expensive, technical and environmental reviews — when one could simply open up a business park with much less of a hassle? Some are still holding out hope that they can attract launch business, particularly for point-to-point suborbital spaceflight. “We do believe, without hesitation, that point-to-point transportation will become a regular way of traveling,” Houston’s Machuca said.

Despite some of the more optimistic assessments in industry, that seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have taken far longer than originally expected to develop suborbital vehicles designed to fly from point A back to point A, which suggests that the far greater challenge of long-distance point-to-point flight, at the levels of safety people expect from passenger aviation today, will not be commercially available any time soon. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine much demand for high-speed intercontinental transportation to and from places like Waco or southern Mississippi.

As long as spaceport advocates are up front about these challenges, there’s little harm in other locations pursuing spaceport status, particularly if it’s tied into broader economic development ambitions. Even if they’re unlikely to launch rockets, they can instead be launchpads for aerospace businesses.

“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the August 19, 2019 issue.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.