Sunday, January 25, 2015

Houston Has a Solution

A September 2013 Houston Spaceport promotional film. Video source: houstonairports YouTube channel.

In July 2011, as the Space Shuttle flew for the final time, I wrote a column titled “Houston Has a Problem.” It was primarily about the whining out of Space City because it didn't receive a Space Shuttle orbiter for display.

Some locals complained that a political conspiracy by the Obama administration had denied them an orbiter, even though more objective local observers noted that Houston's proposal lacked detail and committed funding. An August 2011 NASA Office of Inspector General report found no evidence that the White House had intervened in the site selection, but NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that “many members of Congress, as well as state and local elected officials, tried to influence his decision through personal phone calls, letters, and comments they made to the media. Bolden also said he was contacted by family members of the Columbia crew who died in 2003 and by the candidate organizations themselves.” Sixteen members of the Texas Congressional delegation wrote a letter to Bolden complaining about the “Houston Shuttle snub” and Houston-area Rep. Pete Olson introduced legislation hoping to force NASA to give Houston one of the orbiters if another site's development failed.

Former Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale wrote in his April 14, 2011 blog article:

... Houston is blasé about the shuttles. Houston and Texas have come to regard NASA and JSC as entitlements. We deserve JSC and the shuttle just because of who we are.

More than three years later, it appears that some in Houston have figured out that they have to compete in the real world just like the rest of us.

KPRC-TV Channel 2 in Houston reported on January 22 about the comment period about to end for a proposal to certify Houston's Ellington Field as a commercial spaceport.

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The Houston Airport promotional film released in September 2013 is a CGI fantasy of launch vehicles that could be flying from Ellington, such as the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft that could also fly from Kennedy Space Center, and the Virgin Galactic satellite launch system.

The video falsely claims that “All of manned flight, every one of them, has been managed, has been controlled, has been guided from Houston.” Mario Diaz, the Director of the Houston Airport System who made the false statement, apparently never heard of the Russian and Chinese human space flight programs. Here in the United States, all six Project Mercury missions were “managed” and “controlled” from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as well as the first crewed Gemini flight.

Falsehoods aside, at least the captains of Houstonian industry seem finally to be grasping that the days of entitlement are over. You have to earn it like everyone else.

It also means that Space Coast leadership, which also believed in entitlement up to the end of the Space Shuttle program, need to step up their game. Space Florida works to arrange commercial tenants for Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but still faces bureaucratic obstacles from those who guard their personal fiefdoms at the Cape.

Instead of fighting each other for scraps of federal pork, the elected officials that represent Texas and Florida should be working together to assure that all commercial spaceports in the United States are free to compete for private sector customers. Not only will the best site win, but it also assures that the rest of the world will come back to the United States as we pioneer a new economy based on reaping the rewards of cheaper access to space.

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