If you live near Houston, you have probably already heard about the proposed Houston spaceport at Ellington Airport. However, what you might not have heard is that Houston’s first spaceport may be greatly influenced by University of Houston space architects.
The University of Houston is home to the world’s only master’s program in space architecture. The graduate program in space architecture at UH more or less revolves around SICSA, or the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture. SICSA provides comprehensive orbital and planetary facility research, planning and design services to NASA and numerous major aerospace companies. Since its inception in 1987, the center has stood as the world’s leading academic organization for the planning and design of habitats in space and other extreme environments.
In other words, if you ever need to build an orbital space laboratory, a lunar or Mars surface base – or, nearly any habitat in an extreme environment such an offshore development, underwater facility, or polar research station– there’s one great place to find all of that expertise: the University of Houston. Or, more specifically, SICSA.
So when Sam Ximenes, an alumnus of the University of Houston’s space architecture graduate program, was tasked with spaceport research and design activities, he knew exactly where to turn to first. “I went to SICSA,” Ximenes said. “That was the first thing I did.”
The Business of Spaceports
The Houston Airport System (HAS) first proposed a spaceport at Ellington Airport in 2011 and has aggressively moved forward with their plans since then. Last January, HAS awarded Ximenes’ company, XArc (Exploration Architecture Corporation), a study contract to research the economic and business viability of constructing the proposed spaceport.
Upon receiving the contract, Ximenes immediately reached out to his alma mater to find the space architecture expertise he needed in order to move forward. “Being a space architect, I went to the place where space architecture was born – the University of Houston,” Ximenes said. That was when Ximenes was first introduced to Nejc Trost, a current student in the space architecture program.
“I got someone who was knowledgeable on this right away,” Ximenes explained. “Right out of the gate, Nejc had all the expertise we needed, knew everything we needed him to know from the ground up with no additional training necessary.”
Trost and SICSA were immediately welcomed by Ximenes’ company, XArc, as collaborators and contributors to their project. Together, they began working on the market assessment portion of the spaceport study. “We identified the markets that could be serviced by a spaceport out of Ellington Airport and the vehicle types that could be used out of the spaceport, then we did some projections on potential economic revenue captures” Ximenes explained.
Luckily, the findings from the economic impact study were overwhelmingly positive.
According to Ximenes, the proposed spaceport at Ellington Airport makes particular economic and business sense due to the already very strong space infrastructure the city of Houston has to offer. Houston is home to NASA Johnson Space Center, over 80 commercial aerospace companies, and perhaps the largest and most talented pool of engineering expertise the world has to offer. By leveraging these assets, Ximenes said, Houston’s spaceport has the ability to be more than just a launch site to and from space: it would be a collaborative center which brings private industry, government and academia together inside of a single spaceport facility.
The vision, Ximenes said, is to combine a research and development center, an academic learning center, and a manufacturing facility into a single spaceport “campus” where the public may come, go, research, learn, observe, or be launched into space as they please. The collaborative nature of the spaceport, explained Ximenes, is what makes the Houston’s proposed spaceport particularly economically feasible.
Mario Diaz, aviation director at HAS, agreed that the collaborative nature of Houston’s proposed spaceport is what will make it both unique and commercially-viable.
“I envision a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport capable of serving as an operations base for horizontal take-offs and landings, and encompassing the areas of space tourism, research and development, supporting existing and new space stations and attracting a cluster of aerospace companies,” Diaz explained.
“That’s where the real vision is,” Ximenes added. “A collaborative center with universities, NASA, government, academia, industry and the general public to develop a silicon valley of aerospace right here in Houston. That is where we are headed. Absolutely.”
Houston, We Have a Spaceport
Last September, HAS presented three-dimensional renderings of the proposed Houston spaceport at Ellington Airport to a packed auditorium at the Space Center Houston. The design, which can be viewed here, was lead by UH space architecture alumnus Sam Ximenes, current UH space architecture student Nejc Trost and a design team of XArc – Trost & Associates Architecture.
The team worked closely with Diaz to visualize what Houston’s first spaceport would look like – an undertaking perhaps more complicated than it sounds, since there is no history of spaceport architecture for the team to borrow from. Whatever the team was to come up with in terms of design for Houston’s spaceport would be entirely novel.
Luckily, neither Ximenes nor Trost were strangers to designing spaceports. Ximenes was a member of the design team for Spaceport America, and Trost published a book on spaceport design based on a thesis he wrote while attending the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.
Moreover, as a current space architecture student at UH, Trost had direct experience using 3D rendering software and technologies which Ximenes simply did not have access to when he was attending UH’s space architecture program in 1980’s. So, as the team embarked on the facility assessment portion of the Houston spaceport study, Ximenes turned to Trost for help visualizing precisely what Houston’s spaceport will look like.
The renderings that Trost came up with didn’t just please Ximenes – they caught the attention of news media outlets around the country and the world. The spaceport renderings were met with overwhelming enthusiasm, as reporters, bloggers, and newshounds across the country scrambled to get the news out. PR Newswire even projected images of the spaceport renderings in NYC’s Times Square.
The Future of Houston’s First Spaceport
According to Ximenes, there is no question whether Houston will get a spaceport or not – the only remaining question is when Houston will get a spaceport.
“Houston stands out as the most viable location for a spaceport in the entire country,” Ximenes said. “We’ve got access to the Gulf of Mexico for launches, access to the engineering talent pool in Houston, the aerospace talent, NASA Johnson Space Center, and the University of Houston and its SICSA center.”
In addition to unveiling the spaceport renderings last September, HAS hosted a panel discussion featuring members of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. At the panel, Diaz emphasized that the future of Houston’s stance as the “Space Capital of the World” will rely on its ability to become a leader in commercial spaceflight. The proposed spaceport for Houston, Ximenes said, will allow us to do precisely that.
“The space industry is changing. NASA is beginning to focus more on what they do best, which is develop technologies and long-term space missions. They are relinquishing some of the foothold they have on access to space, and private companies are beginning to develop business models for commercial space flight,” Ximenes explained.
And according to both Ximenes and Diaz, there is no better city in the world than Houston to forge the future of the commercial space industry.
“Houston will soon be the center of gravity for the commercial space industry,” Ximenes said, “and this spaceport will allow the city of Houston to drive an economic sphere of influence beyond the earth.”
Watch a video featuring three-dimensional renderings of Houston's proposed spaceport at Ellington Airport: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQGRT8BeVDU.
View the renderings of Houston's proposed spaceport at Ellington Airport on the HAS website: http://www.fly2houston.com/SpaceportGallery.