Working to bolster its somewhat waning ties to space exploration, Houston announced Wednesday that it's pushing forward with plans to build the nation's latest spaceport.
The city is currently working to apply for a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to run a spaceport. Houston's proposed facility would be at Ellington Airport, which is home to U.S. military and NASA operations.
Mario Diaz, director of Houston's Department of Aviation, said it is only natural that Houston build a spaceport and enter the commercial space race as the city has long been home to NASA's Mission Control and Johnson Space Center, where astronauts conduct most of their training. The Houston-area is also home to more than 50 aerospace contract companies that support NASA and other spaceflight efforts.
But Houston's status as home to the nation's space program has taken a hit in recent years as the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011 and NASA decided to hire out space station supply runs to private industry. The local space industry has also suffered job losses in recent years and residents felt snubbed when NASA didn't award the city one of the four retired space shuttles.
"How does the city dubbed `Space City USA' hold onto the title in the 21st century? We think this is the answer: the Houston spaceport," Diaz said.
Diaz on Wednesday unveiled drawings and three-dimensional graphics depicting various facets of the proposed spaceport, including a sleek-looking passenger terminal building and an aviation museum on a 450-acre site.
Airport system officials said their plans for a spaceport include accommodating reusable launch vehicles, space vehicle assembly, astronaut training and launching of microsatellites.
Diaz said the spaceport would also focus on space tourism. He envisioned the facility having a terminal similar to one found at most airports where people would board aircraft that would take off like an airplane. But when the aircraft would get over the Gulf of Mexico, it would take a more vertical trajectory and ascend to the outer reaches of space before returning back to the spaceport for a landing.
Diaz said the application process for a spaceport license takes 12 to 15 months and if it is granted, the hope is to build the facility within five to 10 years. He said officials have not determined what the spaceport's cost would be, but the plan to pay for it would include funding from the private sector, city bonds and some federal grants.
There are currently eight licensed spaceports in the country, including facilities in Alaska, California and New Mexico.
Eight other locations, including Houston, are in various stages of development. Besides Houston, other Texas cities working on spaceport proposals include the Brownsville area and Midland.
"This is a new and exciting sector of the 21st century economy that carries amazing potential for growth," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement. "We believe a licensed spaceport in Houston would not only serve as an economic generator for the city but it would also enhance Houston's well-deserved reputation as a leader and key player in the aerospace industry."