The Houston Airport System is officially moving ahead with plans to turn Ellington Airport, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, into an FAA-licensed commercial spaceport, according to statements by airport system director Mario Diaz as reported by the Houston Chronicle and ABC Channel 13.
Diaz made his remarks during a State of the Airports address before the Greater Houston Partnership.
“Space… just happens to be our next destination,” Diaz said. The Houston Airport System has completed a feasibility study that estimates it would cost $48-122 million to turn Ellington into a spaceport for suborbital spacecraft. An FAA license could be obtained in as little as 15-18 months, Diaz believes.
In the longer term, Diaz envisions spacecraft “skimming along the top of the world, connecting Houston with places as far and remote as Singapore in under three hours.”
The Ellington Spaceport would be “a cluster of aviation and aerospace companies can flourish and where Houston can again step forward to lead the nation in the transition from a federal to a commercial space program.” Diaz suggested that Ellington Spaceport might be a site for spacecraft manufacturing as well as operations.
Virgin Galactic was mentioned as a possible customer for the spaceport. XCOR Aerospace, which was not mentioned, plans to move its research-and-development headquarters and corporate to Midland, Texas later this year. Although XCOR plans to conduct R&D flights out of Midland, it does not have current plans for commercial service out of that facility. Basing on XCOR Lynx at Ellington field would provide scientists and citizen space explorers with good views of the Gulf of Mexico.
The New Mexican standoff has ended. Legislators have reached a compromise to resolve a liability that threatened to turn Spaceport America into a ghost town.
The issue hinges on liability waivers for spaceflight participants, who fly under the FAA’s doctrine of “informed consent.” The state needs to pass legislation to ensure that those waivers will stand up in court. This is similar to liability protection which the state provides for other industries, such as skiing and horseback riding, where the participant accepts a risk.
New Mexico has existing legislation that protects space-vehicle operators from lawsuits by spaceflight participants, but the existing legislation does not extend to vehicle and part manufacturers. That is a big concern for Virgin Galactic, which recently acquired 100% ownership in The SpaceShip Company, making it the manufacturer as well as operator. Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at SpacePort America, and there was concern that Virgin might pull out if the law was not extended to cover manufacturers.
Adding to New Mexico’s woes is the fact that other states, such as Texas, have already passed liability legislation that covers manufacturers.
New Mexico lawmakers have been trying to pass a more comprehensive spaceflight-participant liability bill since 2011, but their efforts have been blocked by the lobbying of trial lawyers.
Yesterday, it was announced that the two sides had reached a compromise which will allow legislation to pass this year. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the new bill will allow lawsuits against manufacturers but impose a cap on damages. In return, Virgin Galactic would extend its lease on facilities at Spaceport America, which is currently set to expire in 2018.
A group of New Mexico legislators led by Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Demming) is warning that the $200-million Spaceport America “could become a ghost town, with tumbleweeds crossing the runways” if critical liability legislation is not passed.
The New Mexico legislature has passed a liability law that protects space-transportation operators such as Virgin Galactic, but the bill does not cover vehicle manufacturers and part suppliers. That omission puts New Mexico “at a terrible disadvantage” relative to Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia, Smith said.
Southern Georgia has joined the rapidly growing list of potential commercial spaceports sites.
The Camden County Joint Development Authority announced today that its board has voted to explore the development of an “Aero-Spaceport” on land currently owned by Union Carbide Corporation and formerly leased to Bayer CropScience. In addition to functioning as a spaceport, the project would allow the city of St. Marys to relocate the existing St. Marys Municipal Airport away from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, the largest employer in the region. Senior Navy officials have stated that the existing airport poses safety and security concerns.
The proposed Aero-Spaceport site includes more than 4,000 acres of land, a small private airfield, and a rocket-engine testing facility that was used during the Apollo program. Saturn rocket engines were shipped to the site by barge along the adjoining Intracoastal Waterway.
Other sites for the new St. Marys Airport are under consideration, but none of those sites have the same spaceport potential. Joint Development Authority executive director David Keating said, “Launching off out over marsh and then to ocean-based airspace, that’s what’s so special about this property, quick access to ocean-based airspace. And because of these unique features, the property has been generating significant attention for amongst aerospace and commercial-space companies.”
The Georgia Department of Economic Development has been exploring the market potential of a commercial spaceport at the site and reports “significant industry interest.” The proposed spaceport would accommodate both horizontal and vertical launches. Horizontal-launch vehicles would share dual-use facilities with the new airport.
If the project receives the necessary funding and regulatory approval, construction could begin as early as 2014. Initial Aero-Spaceport operations could begin in late 2014 or early 2015.
Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority and aerospace economic development organization, and NanoRacks LLC have announced the Space Florida International Space Station Research Competition. NanoRacks will provide up to eight Payload Box Units (NanoLabs). Space Florida will cover the costs of payload transportation to ISS for eight winning applicants. An independent team of judges will review research proposals based on commercial viability and overall benefit to mankind.
The Midland Reporter-Telegram reports that Midland International Airport is making progress on the FAA spaceport licensing process, in preparation for XCOR Aerospace’s upcoming move to Texas.
According to the Reporter-Telegram, the Midland City Council has amended a contract with engineering consulting firm Parkhill, Smith, and Cooper to cover work on the launch-site license application including an environmental assessment, a baseline noise study, and a sonic-boom analysis.
The article states, “The contract was amended for costs of up to $628,502.”
$628,000 is not a huge sum of money in the context of establishing a new spaceport, but it’s not trivial, either. None of this money goes to build the spaceport, it’s merely paperwork – and that sum doesn’t even include the additional money the Federal government must spend to process and evaluate the paperwork
Launch-site licensing for reusable vehicles is a relatively new area for the FAA, despite previous successful launch-site applications beginning with Mojave Air and Space Port. Midland is also breaking new ground by being the first to establish a spaceport at commercial airport with scheduled passenger airline service.
Licensing expenses of this magnitude are tolerable in the context of a major corporate R&D center, such as the one XCOR is planning for Midland. That may not always be true for future launch sites, however. If suborbital vehicles proliferate as rapidly as both industry and FAA are hoping, there may soon be dozens of launch sites, all over the country. Some may be bustling commercial spaceports, but others may be special-purpose sites that support a limited number of launches for a period of time.
It’s natural to assume that the cost of preparing a launch-site license application will go down over time as industry gains more experience in the process. There’s also the natural tendency of bureaucrats to add more and more requirements over time, however. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation under Dr. George Nield has had a good working relationship with industry. They understand the potential danger that runaway regulation could pose for the industry. There is no guarantee that will always be the case, however. Eternal vigilance, as they say…
We’re not talking about the migration of humans from Earth into space, although we are optimistic that will begin in earnest in the next few years.
We’re talking about the migration of commercial space companies from one part of the United States to another.
In July, XCOR Aerospace announced the relocation of its main research and development operation to Midland, Texas. Next week, XCOR is expected to make another announcement. Although the official statement won’t come until August 23, word is already out on the street that XCOR will announce the development of an engine and vehicle production facility in Florida.
XCOR will retain some operations at Mojave Air and Space Port, in the high desert of California where the company was born. It will probably continue to base a Lynx suborbital spaceship there for the foreseeable future, to provide a launch site for West Coast missions. The company’s main focus, however, is clearly shifting to other states.
Some observers may question the sudden expansion of XCOR into not one, but two new states. The move makes sense, however. Locating R&D and production facilities in two separate states will minimize the possibility of R&D activities randomizing the assembly line.
It’s also worth noting that Masten Space Systems has a signed contract with Space Florida to begin flying its VTVL rocketship at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At the moment, the agreement calls for nothing more than demonstration flights, but that could change in the future. Space Florida officials expect XCOR to create 152 new jobs in Florida. They are no doubt keeping a close eye on Masten. If they see similar potential for growth, it’s reasonable to expect that they will make a push for that company as well.
Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is looking to expand operations in Texas, both at its McGregor testing facility near Waco and a proposed new launch site in South Texas.
All of these moves have one common denominator: they are away from California. While other states are dangling incentives in front of emerging space companies, California has elected to incentivize trial lawyers instead. States such as Texas have passed bills to protect commercial spaceflight operators from potentially crippling lawsuits, but a bill introduced in the California legislature was watered down to the point of meaninglessness. It appears that California has decided to export aerospace jobs.
If anyone is curious about XCOR Aerospace’s new home in Texas and looking for an excuse to visit Midland, there’s one coming up this fall.
October 13-14 is the annual CAF Airsho. (No, we did not misspell it.)
Midland is home base for the Commemorative Air Force and the CAF Airpower Museum, which maintains the largest World War II military collection in private hands today. The annual CAF Airsho is considered to be the best World War II warbird show in the country. This video from a couple years ago shows some of the highlights from the show.
In case anyone is wondering, we’ve been informed that XCOR Aerospace will not participate in this year’s show. They were invited but they’re too busy building the Lynx.
The National Geographic Channel did a nice program on the building of Spaceport America.
This episode of Megastructures does a good job of conveying the scale of the undertaking. It’s also interesting to see the little town of Hatch, NM. Central Market in Texas is currently holding its annual two-week Hatch Chili Festival. If not for Central Market, most people would never have heard of Hatch.
If successful, Spaceport America will provide new opportunities for many locals. At the same time, however, we must compare the $200+ million being spent on Spaceport America with the $40 million in incentives which Midland, TX is offering to XCOR Aerospace. New Mexico is staking a lot more money. Will Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America be five times as successful as XCOR?
This demonstrates, of course, the cost advantage of an existing airport like Midland International or Mojave over a greenfield site like Spaceport New Mexico. At some point, space commerce may outgrow such mixed-use facilities and New Mexico’s investment will start to look prescient. At the moment, however, no one can predict how soon that day will come.
Florida and Puerto Rico are competing with Texas for the site of the new SpaceX launch site, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Texas appears to have the inside track, however, according to a statement by CEO Elon Musk as reported by the Associated Press.
Why is Texas leading the race for the SpaceX facility?
José Pérez-Riera, Puerto Rico’s secretary for economic development and commerce, points out that the island commonwealth is closer to the equator than either Cape Canaveral or Brownsville. That would translate into slightly greater lift capacity for SpaceX rockets. SpaceX might also benefit from lower labor costs and the fact that Puerto Rico residents do not pay US income taxes.
On the other hand, a Puerto Rico launch site would come with some political uncertainty. Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status could change in the future if the island opts for either statehood or independence. Statehood would change the tax situation, but independence could be particularly worrisome. As an independent nation, Puerto Rico would be subject to US export controls, requiring ITAR permits for every rocket and payload.
Florida officials have argued that locating a second SpaceX pad in that state would save money by eliminating redundancy in the SpaceX supply chain. Redundancy, however, may be exactly what SpaceX is seeking. Locating all of its launch sites in one geographic area would leave SpaceX vulnerable to a localized natural disaster. The Florida Space Coast is infamously vulnerable to storm surge. In 2004, Hurricane Frances threatened to wipe out the entire Shuttle infrastructure.
Increasing its presence in Texas would also increase SpaceX’s base of political support. There’s also the matter of proximity to Johnson Space Center and the surrounding manned space community. That may be a small consideration at present, since NASA currently plans to make Kennedy Space Center the lead for commercial crew activities. That, too, is a political consideration that could change in the future, however. With Congressional elections every two years, it behooves SpaceX to keep its options open. A Texas launch site would also be a signal to the Florida delegation that they cannot take SpaceX for granted.
Interest in commercial spaceports is spreading rapidly as suborbital spacecraft like Armadillo’s Hyperion, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, and XCOR’s Lynx move closer to flight. Florida continues its attempts to woo suborbital companies to spaceports in Jacksonville and the Kennedy Space Center / Cape Canaveral area. In Texas, there’s talk about establishing a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport near Houston, in addition to the private spaceport operated by Blue Origin in west Texas and the orbital launch site proposed by SpaceX for south Texas. The latests state to join the race is Colorado, with Governor John Hickenlooper and other state officials backing a proposal to develop Spaceport Colorado at Front Range Airport in Aurora.
This interest is not limited to the United States. Space Expedition Curacao plans to operate an XCOR Lynx from a spaceport in the Caribbean, and Virgin Galactic has a similar deal with a United Arab Emirates group that wants to establish a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.
A new report indicates there is considerable interest in Great Britain as well.
The report, entitled Space: Britain’s New Infrastructure Frontier, was issued by the Institute of Directors and written by Dan Lewis, chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre with input from spaceport consultant Jim Bennett.
According to the report, Britain could develop a spaceport for a fraction of the $200 million being spent on Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Day and Bennett believe that spaceports should be viewed as regional development opportunities, rather than mass transportation facilities like airport. They believe that spaceports will serve as incubators for business and research. To maximize this potential, they say, spaceports should be located near major universities with strong science and engineering departments.
The potential of suborbital science is one of the primary drivers behind this push:
There is huge excitement in the scientific world about the low cost research opportunities that will be opened up by [Virgin Galactic] and XCOR. The Southwest Research Institute has already purchased 6 seats for its researchers to conduct experiments on [Virgin Galactic] and another six on XCOR along with scientific payloads. Citizens in Space has bought 10 suborbital spaceflights from XCOR. The costs of doing small experiments in space will be dramatically lower and the queue a high factor lower… A spaceport for suborbital craft in the UK opens up quick, cheap and easy access to research for British-based researchers that wasn’t there before. Telescope time above the atmosphere is going to cost $50,000 rather than $10 million for example.
Citizen space exploration (aka space tourism) is not overlooked, either. The report says that a spaceport should be located in an area that would provide a good view of scenery from space, such as one of the existing air bases in Scotland, such as RAF Lossiemouth, or Northern Ireland. Those northern air bases are also considered good sites for satellite launches to polar orbit using upper stages launched from suborbital spacecraft such as Lynx Mark III.
One possible worry, or perhaps opportunity, is the possibility that Scotland might secede from the United Kingdom. If the matter of Scottish secession is not settled before a spaceport is established, it might create regulatory uncertainty for spaceport investors. As a result, the report suggests a possible alternative site on a manmade island in Severn Estuary at the eastern end of the Bristol Channel in southwest England. The site was previously considered for a new commercial airport, Severnside International, which was rejected on grounds of estimated cost (£2 billion). A spaceport can’t justify that price tag, either, but a dual-use facility might.
There is also the possibility that Scotland might secede before the spaceport is built. If that happens, the Scottish government might demand the removal of Royal Air Force bases from Scotland. That would create an opportunity for one of the newly vacant bases to become a dedicated spaceport.
Space Exploration Technologies wants to build a new spaceport in Cameron County, Texas.
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has just filed a notice of intent to begin preparation of an environmental impact statement and hold public hearings on the project. The NOI can be found here.
SpaceX proposes to “launch the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy orbital vertical launch vehicles from a private site located in Cameron County, Texas.” If the project is approved, SpaceX will build a vertical launch area and a control center area to support up to 12 commercial launches per year. Up to two launches each year would be Falcon Heavy. The remainder would be Falcon 9 and “a variety of smaller reusable suborbital launch vehicles.”