As the Johnson Space Center and several local aerospace companies ready to return to the moon and eventually travel to Mars, government, industry, education and economic development leaders have identified two major goals to make sure the Bay Area gets a piece of the action.
One is workforce training. To assemble and manufacture the technology that will get humans back into deep space, the Bay Area needs trained aerospace industry personnel. San Jacinto College will fill that gap with a training center at the Houston Spaceport, part of the Ellington Airport, that will officially open in the fall.
The other goal is making the Houston Spaceport ready for aerospace companies that might be interested in locating to Houston. That endeavor began June 28 with the groundbreaking of nearly $19 million worth of spaceport infrastructure, including roads and power lines.
With actionable steps toward both goals, officials said they are confident the Houston Spaceport will become the home of several aerospace companies employing a skilled, highly paid local workforce, strengthening the Bay Area’s aerospace industry and economy.
“Students will have the chance to interact with industry and get a hands-on training experience that will make us more attractive, more competitive when pursuing developments for the Houston Spaceport,” said Arturo Machuca, general manager of the Houston Airport System’s Ellington Airport.
Local officials’ push for aerospace industry workforce training and spaceport development began with a loss.
In 2016, Seattle-based aerospace company Blue Origin expressed interest in locating a rocket engine manufacturing plant in Houston. The company was considering 36 cities in 16 states for the plant, said Dan Seal, executive director of special initiatives for the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.
Eventually, Blue Origin whittled options down to Houston and Huntsville, Alabama. Blue Origin chose Huntsville.
Blue Origin identified two of Houston’s shortcomings that Huntsville provided: a spaceport that was ready for companies to move in and a trained workforce. The loss of the contract was a wake-up call for officials who realized they would have to work together to make sure they would not lose out on such a significant aerospace contract next time, Seal said.
“Many times, when you lose you learn more than when you win,” Seal said.
Officials have started toward fixing the first shortcoming by breaking ground on Phase 1 of the spaceport, which will be developed by May. BAHEP is already in the process of attracting to the Houston Spaceport five aerospace companies, Seal said. Machuca said he believes Virgin Galactic, an aerospace company developing commercial spacecraft, will eventually be at the spaceport.
“We are bringing a development that will bring solid jobs to our area [and]will bring tremendous opportunity to our area,” Machuca said.
As complicated as developing Phase 1 seems, fixing the Houston Spaceport’s second shortcoming has taken more time and collaboration, officials said.
A few weeks after Hurricane Harvey, Houston Airport System, BAHEP and San Jacinto College officials decided the college would establish an aerospace training program similar to its petrochemical and maritime programs, both of which have had success, Seal said.
Officials visited other spaceports and aerospace industries in the United States and even Scotland to learn what other cities and higher-education institutions were doing to train and develop aviation workforces, said Sarah “Sallie Kay” Janes, San Jacinto College associate vice chancellor for continuing and professional development.
“We didn’t want to necessarily compete,” she said. “We wanted to find the right niche for the Houston Spaceport.”
After returning, San Jacinto College officials took what they learned and established the Aviation and Aerospace Advisory Committee of industry leaders to help guide the college in what it needs to train. San Jacinto College has since established a curriculum it will begin teaching this fall.
Committee Vice Chairman Trey Hall, who is president of local aerospace industry-related company Rothe, is excited to see what will become San Jacinto’s Houston Spaceport-based training center dubbed the Edge Center.
“When we start projecting into the future, our needs are going to be growing, so we need that workforce right now,” he said. “There’s not enough good people to draw upon.”
San Jacinto College has leased part of the Houston Aerospace Support Center, the spaceport’s sole building, for its workforce training program. The building was named the Edge Center to reflect the college’s goal to be a leader into the future of aerospace, Janes said.
“We want to be on the leading edge of what goes on out there,” she said.
Starting this fall, San Jacinto College will offer five classes teaching about aerospace structures, manufacturing, how to assemble composite materials and more. Eventually the Edge Center will teach advanced electronics, structural design and beyond, Janes said.
College officials expect only a few students will take the classes to start, but interest will grow over time, especially after recruitment efforts begin. The classes can train those already working in the industry who want to learn new hands-on skills or students entirely new to aerospace, Janes said.
“We can take these different individuals coming from different backgrounds and train them to be part of the new workforce,” she said.
The classes will be taught by industry experts who work full time in fields related to the classes. Learning will be individualized or sometimes online, but it is important students learn “touch skills” they can only get through hands-on experience, Janes said. The goal is to offer credited San Jacinto College classes at the spaceport, Janes said.
Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University have also expressed interest in getting involved with the spaceport, said Dave Martin, Houston City Council District E member.
Local aerospace company Intuitive Machines is leasing part of the Edge Center to build and test a lunar lander it will send to the moon in 2021. President Steve Altemus, who serves as chair of the Aviation and Aerospace Advisory Committee, and Hall both expect to hire new employees directly from the Edge Center’s training classes as their companies grow, they said.
“They can go this path, and they can start earning real money more rapidly. Then they can continue their technical evolution while they’re earning money in the industry,” he said.
The intention of the Houston Spaceport is to eventually house a commercial spaceport of supersonic and even hypersonic jets capable of delivering passengers to far-away destinations in a fraction of the time it takes today. It is possible jets will one day launch horizontally from the spaceport, fly over the Gulf of Mexico and shoot vertically into space for missions to the International Space Station, officials said.
“Just like aviation has evolved over the last 100 years, commercial spaceflight is going to do the same [at a faster pace],” Machuca said.
Officials realized Houston should be the place where aerospace companies locate and where their technology is developed and manufactured.
“We want them here, and we want them to be fueled by the students that are coming out of the San Jacinto College and the Edge Center,” Martin said. “That is our ultimate goal.”
“This work has to be done somewhere, so why not here?” he said. “We ought to do it here in Houston. If we don’t do it here in Houston, shame on us.”