Houston's Spaceport may have sounded like a high-tech daydream when it was first announced back in 2015, but it's now one step closer to becoming a reality. Why? Well, because Axiom Space has just announced plans on constructing its 14-acre headquarters on the site where Ellington Airport currently sits.
This is an impressive score for the city and the long-held goal of turning the former World War I-era training site and airport into a spaceport—essentially, a base from which spacecraft are launched into space—and then transforming that spaceport into a focal point of aerospace activity.
Although the spaceport has already secured a handful of tenants, it had failed to lock in the bigger names in the private commercial space industry, until now. Axiom, a company created by former NASA engineer Michael Suffredini and longtime government contractor Kam Ghaffarian in 2016, is already an up-and-coming name in commercial space, having won a bid from NASA to begin building a spaceport on the International Space Station earlier this year. The plan is to use the company's new hub to construct the spaceport and train astronauts working in the private sphere. (The company also intends to send foreign astronauts and "space participants" for 10-day stays aboard the ISS for $55 million per person.)
The company wants to start construction in 2021 and to actually move in by 2023, pending the ironing out of details, like how the deal will be financed and Houston City Council's official approval.
“It’s good news, especially in a very challenging year,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said when he announced the deal on Tuesday afternoon. “And what it demonstrates is that in this city, working directly with the business community, we are creating the atmosphere and right environment such that as we come out of the pandemic, we will be—I will use this expression—we will take off in the city of Houston.”
Of course, this doesn't mean that the bright-eyed visions of Ellington transforming into something out of a Ray Bradbury short story are guaranteed to become a reality yet. Houston is one of 11 licensed spaceports in the country, and although this fact may sound flashy, keep in mind that the transformation of airport to spaceport takes money and, well, travels to space. Despite last year's groundbreaking, and the Houston Airport System funding about $20 million in upgrades to roads and infrastructure in and around the site, Blue Origin and the other companies in the growing field of commercial aerospace haven't proved willing to set up shop at Ellington. Considering the expense of this project, which estimates say will cost upwards of $48 million, and the fact that its location in the middle of a sprawling city means that it will only be able to host spaceflights that take off using spacecraft that fly and land the way planes do, with no vertical launches, the city will need to procure even more high-level deals to ultimately make the spaceport actually happen.
Still, Axiom coming aboard is a big step in the right direction. Axiom is a growing company—it added 90 employees this year, and expect it to be hiring next year. The company estimates it will add roughly 1,000 jobs to the Houston workforce in the years to come—and one with a NASA contract, after all. And if space tourism ever does become the next Disney World, it's nice to know that we'll have our own spaceport right here in Houston.