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A space commercializes, where does Houston fit?
Question of the Day
Late this year, Virgin Galactic may launch its first suborbital flight, opening space to non-astronauts. And private companies are beginning to announce dates by which they’ll be ready to fly astronauts into orbit, a venture that until now has been solely the province of governments.
“We’re seeing a democratization of access to space,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a four-time astronaut who now leads the industry group Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1dpwBTb).
The rise of commercial space raises questions about the future of Houston as Space City, which for the entire history of U.S. spaceflight has been responsible for training and managing the flights of U.S. astronauts. Houston is racing to reinvent itself this decade as other parts of the country seek to chip away at its pre-eminence as the home of human spaceflight.
For now, Johnson Space Center will continue to be the home of NASA astronauts, but it’s not clear what role the center will have in working with astronauts who fly on privately-built commercial vehicles to space.
NASA, for example, chose to establish its office overseeing the development of private spacecraft that will eventually carry U.S. astronauts to the space station at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, instead of at the Houston-based center.
The Houston region has not been oblivious to the rise of commercial space and its implications for the city’s traditional hegemony in human spaceflight.
“Houston is being very proactive,” said David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute.
Texas A&M; recently held a commercial space workshop with Rice and industry partners to discuss a commercial space strategy for Houston and Texas. Universities, governments and industry partners will need to work together to ensure the vibrancy of Houston’s space presence, Alexander said.
The centerpiece of the region’s efforts is the development of a spaceport.
Last September, the Houston Airport System unveiled preliminary plans to develop a 450-acre spaceport at Ellington Airport. Houston aviation director Mario Diaz said he envisions a facility that would be home to space tourism as well as support aerospace hangars, manufacturing facilities, educational institutions and museums.
According to Darian Ward, a spokeswoman for the airport system, the city is about halfway through completing its application for an FAA license to operate the spaceport. The airport system expects to submit the license this summer and if all goes well could receive approval by the end of the year.
“The process is on time, and I believe that is significant,” Ward said.
Houston would be entering a competitive market. There are already more than a dozen government and private spaceports, with widely varying amounts of activity, in operation in the United States.
With a number of financial incentives, Spaceport America, in New Mexico, has secured a deal with Virgin Galactic to launch flights of SpaceShipTwo from there.
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