Breaking ground

Houston college system prepares for takeoff of its spaceport training system

The Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport has broken ground, which means San Jacinto College is a step closer to its EDGE Center becoming a reality. Photo courtesy of San Jacinto College

The first phase of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport broke ground last month, and that means a lot of things for a lot of entities like the Houston Airport System, the Houston City Council, and the Federal Aviation Administration, to name a few. But, to San Jacinto College, it means being one step closer to its on-site training facility, called the EDGE Center.

The facility will offer four training programs to start provided by San Jacinto College, the official education training partner for the Houston Spaceport. The programs include: composites manufacturing and repair technician, aerospace electrical assembly technician, aerospace structures technician, and mechatronics and industrial automation technician.

Aside from these four initial programs, the college will be able to over customized and individualized training as needed.

"We are excited for this opportunity," says Brenda Hellyer, San Jacinto College chancellor, in a release. "We look forward to creating an educational space that will support and enhance the workforce needs of current and future businesses in the Houston Spaceport. We thank the City of Houston, the Houston Airport System, and the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership for working with us to make this EDGE Center a reality."

EDGE is just one part of the 154 acres of development currently in the works at Ellington Airport. The full property includes 450 acres that will all eventually be developed.

"Once completed, Phase 1 will stand ready to encourage even more progress to help companies with development of satellite technologies, drone technology, and urban air mobility initiatives," says Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz in the release. "And beyond technology, it will help develop the talent to drive innovation forward. San Jacinto College is taking steps to open an aerospace workforce training center here, providing a talent pipeline that will help attract companies to Houston."

Houston's commercial spaceport plans were only the 10th to be approved by the FAA — and the only one to be centrally located to a major city (the site is less than 20 minutes from downtown Houston, according to the website). In October, the city council approved the $18.8 million Phase I budget for the project, which will account for developing the infrastructure of the project and, eventually, even coworking and innovation space for aerospace companies, according to a release.


Photo via fly2houston.com

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.