HOUSTON — Houston has landed a partner in its bid to establish its own spaceport in the form of a private spaceflight company that may someday land its mini space shuttle at the facility.
The Houston Airport System (HAS), which last year revealed plans to convert Ellington Field into "Houston Spaceport," signed a letter of intent with the Sierra Nevada Corp. to explore landing the company's Dream Chaser spacecraft at the proposed facility. The Dream Chaser is one of three commercial vehicles now vying to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
"For all the [space program] work that has been done in Houston, there is one thing that hasn't happened, and that is [a spacecraft] hasn't returned here," Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada's space systems division, said at a news conference on April 10 at Rice University Space Institute in Houston. "We thought maybe there is a way we can do that." [Space Plane Evolution: Winged Spaceship History (Infographic)]
The Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature version of NASA's retired shuttle, is scheduled to make its first uncrewed orbital test flight in November 2016. Based on the design of a NASA lifting body craft, the Dream Chaser is the only winged, non-capsule vehicle design being considered for the space agency's commercial crew program. The spacecraft is designed to launch atop a rocket and make runway landings.
"We have the right vehicle, at the right time, in the right way, why not try to bring that vehicle home and land it here in Houston, if we can go through all the things that we need to do to make that happen," Sirangelo said.
Ellington Airport, located within 15 minutes of downtown Houston and nearby NASA Johnson Space Center, currently supports both general aviation operations and flights involving the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security and NASA. HAS plans to submit its federal permit application later this summer to establish Ellington as the country’s ninth licensed spaceport.
The partnership with Sierra Nevada will contribute real-world experience to the spaceport plans, said Mario Diaz, aviation director for the Houston Airport System.
"Now when we start looking at the functional planning, the buildings themselves — the hangars, the different kinds of research facilities, the kinds of incubator spaces — we will have firsthand knowledge and real-world information that will inform that first design and inform the feasibility for the future companies that certainly will follow behind Sierra Nevada," Diaz said.
Under the terms of the letter of intent, HAS and Sierra Nevada will conduct a study to examine not just what it will take to land a vehicle like the Dream Chaser at Ellington, but why returning to Houston is beneficial to the space program and the surrounding community. [Now Boarding: 10 Private Spaceships Set to Blast Off]
"A lot of people look at our shiny, sexy little vehicle and that's what they focus in on," Sirangelo told Space.com. "As much as that is a passion of mine, it is really what we do with it that matters. In my view, we are building the iPad and it is now time for people to build the apps to run on that iPad.
"A large part of what goes on in space research is medical related. What better way to look to the future than finding a way to link the enormous medical community here in Houston to what we're doing in space?" Sirangelo said. "The experiments that we bring back from the space station, instead of splashing down in an ocean half a world away, they could land at Ellington and move over to Rice or Houston Medical Center and do that within hours of coming off the space station. Isn't that a better way to handle very valuable [research]?"
NASA is expected to announce its choice of companies to compete for crewed flights to the space station by August. In addition to Sierra Nevada, the Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) are seeking to begin commercial spaceflight services by 2017.
According to Diaz, the Houston Airport System expects to receive federal approval for its spaceport by January or February 2015. Dream Chaser would land only in Houston, as Houston Spaceport will support only horizontal, rather than vertical, launches. The mini-shuttle will lift off for space on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Sirangelo said partnering on the Houston Spaceport will build upon the relationship it already has working with the Florida spaceport.
"We have begun our relationship working with the Spaceport Florida folks and the Shuttle Landing Facility that's in Florida, but we also felt that it was very important to have a secondary field," he said. "Houston and Florida are working together on the commercial crew program for NASA, and they are working together on this.
"The facilities [at Ellington] are very good already, we've used the field for other parts of our business, we understand the nature of it, and I think the commitment of the city is quite strong," Sirangelo said.