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Houston Spaceport general manager wants to connect the city to the rest of the world

Commercial space technology is being developed at this moment, and Arturo Machuca wants to make sure the Houston Spaceport is ready for the technology when it's finished. Courtesy of the Houston Airport System

In 2015, Houston became the 10th licensed spaceport in the United States. Now, four years later, it's Arturo Machuca's job as general manager of the Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport to guide the institution from idea into reality.

Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport are co-located just 15 miles outside of downtown Houston and just north of the Johnson Space Center. While major players in commercial space exploration develop the technology for space travel, Machuca and his team at the Houston Airport Systems are working to build Houston's Spaceport to be ready for that technology when it arrives.

Machuca spoke with InnovationMap for the final installment of this month's space-focused interviews in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your career to date. 

Arturo Machuca: I am a very fortunate man in that I have had the chance to be involved in this project that's so relevant to the city of Houston. My background has been in aviation for 38 years. I've worked 21 years in commercial aviation. I've also worked in air service development, working with airlines to add new routes to and from Houston. I've worked in corporate aviation as well.

Now past 10 years since July 2009 been with the Houston Airport System. I was first based at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, then in 2012 I was fortunate enough to work with director Mario Diaz on the inception of the spaceport plans. In 2015, we became the 10th commercial spaceport in the nation.

It's been so much fun. It's so good to come to work where you get to say, "I'm having fun with this."

IM: With the Houston Spaceport being only the 10th licensed in the United States, has it been challenging laying the groundwork?

AM: There has been some challenges in that we are adapting our infrastructure to serve as the commercial space, including very in depth due diligence. But at the same time, it's been easy because of the fact that we are distinguished amongst other spaceports. We are the only truly urban spaceport in the world, which makes it easier from my perspective. Plus, we are the home to Johnson Space Center and a number of space companies based here. While challenging, it's been very good to have those things on our side.

IM: What’s the big picture goal of the Houston Spaceport?

AM: Our goal will be to one day connect Houston to the world by commercial spaceflight. Companies like Virgin Galactic are developing their technology for point-to-point transportation, or space flight. We have no control over that — it's up to them. In the meantime, we continue to take advantage of existing structure and turning it into the spaceport. We use what we already have at Ellington Airport. We're serving aviation today until commercial spaceflight gets here.

IM: The Spaceport just broke ground on Phase I of the transformation. What are the priorities for that initiative?

AM: We have nearly 1,000 acres of land that we can develop. Our vision is to create a cluster of aerospace and aviation companies that allow for us to get to space in a quicker fashion. We have chosen four major areas of development to focus on phase one of the spaceport: drones, micro satellites, aviation and commercial spaceflight, and data and analytics. We're building the neighborhood, if you will, so that companies can come and set up on our land.

We've been working with universities, and about a month ago we just announced the Edge workforce training center where San Jacinto College will train students to support the industry.

IM: The spaceport has quite a few educational partners. Why has that been such a core component to the project?

AM: About 2.5 years ago we were working with a proposal to work with Blue Origin — a company owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon. Blue Origin was looking for a location to build their rocket engine, and we thought the Houston Spaceport was the perfect place. The process took a little over a year, and I am proud to say that we made it to the final two cities. We were competing with Huntsville, Alabama, which is known as Rocket City. We didn't win, but when we went back and asked for feedback, they said that Huntsville offered a tremendous amount of educational support. We clearly realized that it's important to have that direct connection.

IM: What’s Houston’s future role in space?

AM: I think that Houston is poised for success because of the existing components we already have in place, like the Johnson Space Center. The city of Houston is working very closely with the JSC to make sure we remain mission relevant.

Pushing into commercial space flight, I believe that Houston is poised for a tremendous future. We are learning to better coordinate with the players on the government side and the private industry. I envision Houston becoming even a stronger player in the next 50 years because of the development and the growth of assets. I can see us serving as a city where we take passengers from one end of the world to the others using commercial space flight.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Airports, spaceports, and carports — these three Houston innovators represent the city's future. Courtesy photos

This week's Houston innovators to keep an eye on are working on technologies that are true testaments to the day and age we live in. From commercial space travel to a product that protects vehicles from floodwaters that are more and more frequent, these entrepreneurs are providing solutions to problems no one even dreamed of having a few decades ago.

Mark Bergsrud, co-founder and CEO of Grab

Courtesy of Grab

For over 20 years, Mark Bergsrud worked at the intersection of travel and technology — first at Continental Airlines, then at United Airlines following the merger, and now for himself as the co-founder of Grab, a Houston startup that's making grabbing a bite at the airport way easier.

Grab's technology digitizes and optimizes the airport dining experience — from ordering pickup remotely ahead of time to kiosks or table tablet ordering. The company, which has operations in 37 airports, just closed a multimillion-dollar Series A fundraising round to help continue its growth.

"We've called ourselves a startup for a long time, and now we think of ourselves as more of a scale-up company," Bergsrud says. "Now it's about having the money to scale faster."

Read more about the company by clicking here.

Rahel Abraham, founder of ClimaGuard

Courtesy of ClimaGuard

For inventors, you can usually pinpoint a particular "eureka" moment. For Rahel Abraham, it was seeing her 2008 Infiniti G35 completely totaled by the rain waters of Hurricane Harvey. She knew there had to be some way to protect cars and valuables from flooding, so she invented ClimaGuard's Temporary Protective Enclosure.

Abraham, who was selected for the 12-week DivInc accelerator program in Austin for her company, wants to make the product available to everyone.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham says.

Read more about the company by clicking here.

Arturo Machuca, general manager of Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport

Arturo Machuca

Courtesy of the Houston Airport System

Arturo Machuca is playing a waiting game. Various companies are developing commercial spaceflight and — whether that technology delivers in two years or 10 years, Machuca wants Houston to be ready. Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport are being developed throughout a multiphase, multimillion-dollar process, while also serving as an active airport.

"We use what we already have at Ellington Airport," Machuca tells InnovationMap. "We're serving aviation today until commercial spaceflight gets here."

Read the full interview by clicking here.