After being turned down for one of NASA’s three surviving space shuttles (that actually flew in space) and enduring a two-year review and approval process, Houston, Texas just became the tenth space launch site in America to win an operator’s license from the FAA. And those launches can happen horizontally, a key element in the future of commercial space travel.

The FAA’s license grants the Houston launch site at Ellington Airport approval for horizontally-launched space vehicles as well as space vehicle assembly. Eventually, this permission could allow micro-satellite and space tourism industries to develop in Houston, providing a major boost to the economy. Because Houston is already home to the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, redeveloping Ellington Airport into a commercial space hub builds on a legacy of America’s history in space.

Horizontally-launched space vehicles could include a future “single stage to orbit” vehicle such as the Skylon concept from Reaction Engines, or more realistically, an “air launch to orbit” configuration (such as the enormous Stratolaunch Systems concept from Paul Allen and Burt Rutan) of a mothership that carries the spacecraft from the ground to launch speed and altitude, where the two separate.


The proposed Stratolaunch carrier aircraft would dwarf the Boeing 747-8

While the commercial space industry had a tough day over the weekend, there are still plenty of encouraging signs for the industry’s future. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Spaceport America’s Visitor Center opened last week. Even German automaker Audi is getting in on the action, announcing that they will send a rover to the moon in 2017 as part of Google’s Lunar XPrize.


Today’s announcement is pivotal, but we still have to exercise patience. It won’t be tomorrow or even next year, but the new Houston site will someday be a gateway for new markets and emerging technologies. When future-you is ready to boldly go where few have gone before, Houston will be the city to facilitate your spaceflight fantasies.


Image credit: Houston Spaceport concept renderings - Houston Airport System, Stratolaunch comparison graphic - Clem Tillier/Wikicommons