By Erin Mulvaney

A new federal license and growing interest from aeronautics companies have moved Houston's Ellington Airport closer to becoming a space-age hub where satellites launch, spacecraft land and astronauts train.

Several private space companies were on hand Tuesday when a Federal Aviation Administration official presented local airport and city officials with the launch license establishing Ellington as the nation's 10th federally designated commercial spaceport.

Fresh conceptual renderings show the former World War I training base transformed into a futuristic campus with sleek terminals, corporate hangars and spacious grounds around the runways where spacecraft are parked.

"This represents the future of Houston, not just the past," Mayor Annise Parker said during a ceremony at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. "This is one small step. ...It's an important step for Houston."

Her words echoed a time when space innovation in the U.S. was at its height and much of the action centered around Houston. President John F. Kennedy first promised to put a man on the moon in a speech on Rice University's campus in 1962. Now, as interest in space industry has waxed and waned over the decades in both the city and country, the latest evolution will likely be built on the back of the small but growing private space sector and those who envision space tourism and advanced manufacturing.

"While this process has been fraught with numerous disappointments and setbacks, now we will use space for the betterment of humanity on earth," said Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz.

Two years after City Council approved the Houston Airport System's plan to convert industrial Ellington into a commercial spaceport, industry is responding.

Sierra Nevada's Space Systems announced earlier this year that it hopes to land its Dream Chaser -- a spacecraft that looks like a small version of the space shuttle and is designed to carry humans -- on Ellington's runways. Sierra Nevada was dealt a setback last year when NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX as its providers to deliver humans to the International Space Station by the end of 2017.

On Tuesday, Diaz said the airport was close to signing a similar agreement with Boeing.

Boeing, United Technologies and Integrated Spaceflight Services all sent representatives to the Ellington announcement.

Also present was Intuitive Machines, a young Houston company developing technology with applications in aerospace, medicine and energy.

Terrestrial Return Vehicle

Steve Altemus, president of Intuitive Machines, said he plans to bring his company to Ellington as an "anchor tenant." He said it is developing a Terrestrial Return Vehicle that will be capable of returning from space and landing at the spaceport.

"I see the spaceport as a campus to attract high-tech businesses for the purpose of advancing technology and developing and emerging space culture right here in Houston," Altemus said.

George Nield, associate administrator for FAA Commercial Space Transportation, said the history of space in the U.S. has historically been led by the moves from the federal government, but that is changing. "Private industry now plays a leading role," Nield said. He said multiple companies could soon be offering flights on a regular basis to space and the way the U.S. thinks about space flight could fundamentally change. Once completed, Ellington Airport would likely include vehicle manufacturing capabilities, an aviation museum, terminal facility, office complexes for aerospace companies and campuses for educational institutions.

Airport officials declined to specify a timeline and pricetag for the ambitious project, though they said upfront costs, including a feasibility study and the application, were less than $750,000. A previous feasibility study conducted by the system found it would cost $48 million to $122 million to equip Ellington for landing small space vehicles on a regular basis. The actual cost will depend on the private companies that plan to work with the airport.

State and local governments have so far had mixed success with their spaceport initiatives.

The state of New Mexico invested more than $200 million in Spaceport America, built in the southeastern part of the state, for Virgin Galactic. The sparkling facility opened in 2011 but has since sat empty, as Virgin Galactic has been unable to finalize the design of its suborbital space plane.

In Texas, Midland invested $10 million to lure another commercial space company, XCOR, which could test fly its Lynx spacecraft within the next year. However that company won't fly tourists from Midland, preferring more scenic flights over the east and west coasts.

Like both of those spaceport facilities, rockets wouldn't be launchedfrom Ellington, but eventually it could see the take off and landing of airplane-like spacecraft from runways.

Infrastructure an advantage

Given the challenges commercial space operators are facing in developing their spacecraft for tourists, this is unlikely to occur soon, and almost certainly won't without a substantial investment from the city of Houston to lure a prospective company to the area.

Diaz made it clear that no infrastructure would be built "on spec." The state has already given the airport project grants and officials will seek more funding from the federal government.

Yet the cost will be less than that of some of the existing stations, which were built from the ground up. City leaders say Ellington has an advantage because of its existing infrastructure.

The Ellington site includes 600 acres of land available for lease. It has three runways with 24-hour air traffic control, sites with airfield access, corporate aviation hangar sites and flexible leasing options.

The Houston Airport System has entered into partnerships with the Johnson Space Center and the Satellite Applications Catapult, an innovation and technology campus in the United Kingdom. Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M and the University of Texas recently formed a partnership, the Texas University Space Consortium, which will work toward education and research collaborations in space and technology.

David Alexander with the Rice Space Institute, said he hopes the newly formed group will use the spaceport for lessons and research. "Endeavors like the Houston Spaceport are the bridges between the developing new space culture and the transitioning space establishment," Alexander said.

(c)2015 the Houston Chronicle