DALLAS – Houston’s Ellington Airport would become the nation’s ninth commercial space flight facility under a proposal outlined Wednesday Sept. 4 by Houston Airport System officials.

The 97-year old former U.S. Air Force base would support horizontally launched reusable vehicles to loft astronauts, space tourists, and small satellites into space. The vehicles would be carried over the Gulf of Mexico by large mother-ship airplanes to begin their 60-mile vertical rocket ascent over open waters.

The infrastructure needed at Ellington for the effort is expected to cost between $48 million and $122 million. Funding has not been identified, but airport system director Mario Diaz said it probably would include a combination of bonds, federal grants, and private sector contributions.

“It is too early to tell how the project will be financed,” said airport spokesman Darian Ward. “So far we have only been approved to provide up to $1 million for the research and licensing pieces.”

Preliminary planning for the Houston spaceport includes a terminal, aerospace industry facilities, and an aerospace museum

The 2013 Legislature established a $15 million infrastructure fund for projects at public spaceports in Texas over the next two years. Other legislation adopted during the session included closure of a south Texas beach near Brownsville for a proposed spaceport there, and limited liability exposure for rocket launches and tests.

Houston Airport System, which issues debt for projects at Ellington as well as city-owned Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport, carries senior lien ratings of AA-minus from Standard & Poor’s and Aa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

The airport system has $2.4 billion of outstanding debt.

The Ellington spaceport facility would enhance Houston’s position as a leader in the space race, Diaz said.

“How does the city dubbed ‘Space City USA’ hold onto the title in the 21st century?” he said. “We think this is the answer.”

Commercial space flight, not just space tourism, is a viable proposition, Diaz said. Operations at the Ellington spaceport could accommodate space vehicle assembly, astronaut training, and experiments into material fabrication in zero-gravity environments.

“It’s important to realize that this type of work is already taking place today,” said Diaz.

More than two dozen reusable commercial space vehicles are being developed, he said, and the first commercial spaceflight is expected in 2014.

“This is not a conversation based on science fiction or futuristic projections,” he said.

“This is a conversation about how Houston can access and enhance an industry that is already well-established and growing exponentially,” Diaz said.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the spaceport venture has “an amazing potential” for economic development. 

“Houston was the first word ever spoken from the surface of the moon, so our city already enjoys a unique place in aerospace history,” Parker said. “But we need to take the steps necessary to ensure that Houston remains at the forefront of this exciting industry throughout the 21st century.”

The Houston City Council in July approved a $720,000 contract with a consulting firm to develop the application needed to obtain an operator license for the spaceport launch facility.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued eight of the spaceport operator licenses.

The licenses are for facilities in California, New Mexico, Florida, Alaska, and Virginia.

New Mexico is building its spaceport with the proceeds from $200 million of state bonds.

Ellington Airport is 15 miles south of downtown and near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, Texas.

Houston acquired the former Ellington Air Force Base in 1984.

It now accommodates military and NASA flights as well as general aviation uses but no commercial operations. The airport facilities include a 9,000-foot runway and an 8,000-foot runway.

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