Out of this world

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

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.