With a bustling ‘spaceport,’ Midland finds sky is no longer the limit

Published 11:45 am Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A West Texas oil-and-gas hub is poised to shoot the moon, as a nascent space tourism industry that’s already selling tickets promises to remake the local economy.

Midland’s FAA-certified spaceport has landed a tenant from Mojave, Calif., XCOR Aerospace, which plans to move its headquarters and is booking reservations for its reusable, two-person aircraft piloted by a veteran NASA shuttle commander.

The company is renovating and expanding an existing hangar at the city-owned airport to house a research and development operation. It’s 35-minute, ground-to-ground flights – costing $95,000 per trip – are expected to begin next year.

Justine Ruff, Midland’s director of airports, said theirs is the nation’s first commercial airport to also house a commercial spaceport. There are eight other FAA-licensed space launch sites in the United States.

Three airlines – Southwest, American Eagle and United Express – operate three-dozen flights from Midland International Air and Space Port each day. Soon enough, XCOR’s flights are expected to take-off and land from its 9,500-foot runway, as well.

“You can fly in on Southwest and fly out on XCOR,” said Ruff. “It’s my understanding that they’ve sold upwards of 400 tickets.”

The flights – to an altitude of about 62 miles above the Earth’s surface – will have far-reaching effects on the ground.

Bryan Campen, an XCOR spokesman, said “a rather large, first-wave migration” of personnel will begin moving to Midland once school is out this summer.

And its plan to relocate its headquarters has attracted at least one other company.

Orbital Outfitters, also of California, is moving to West Texas, too. It’ll make custom spacesuits for passengers.

“We do have a bunch of rocket scientists moving to Midland this summer,” said Nellwyn Barnett, executive vice president at the Midland Chamber of Commerce.

Of Orbital, the specialty supplier, he added, “You don’t just buy a spacesuit off the rack.”

Orbital’s new, 17,600-square-foot facility will house room to create and test spacesuits, as well as a facility to make test chambers for satellites, according to the company’s website.

Midland announced its deal with XCOR in 2012 – the culmination of a search by city officials to diversity the boom-or-bust local economy.

Local leaders were looking for companies that needed the skills already possessed by Midland’s engineers and machinists, adept in oil and gas technology, and that offered comparable pay scales.

“The one industry we could find to fill that niche was aerospace,” said Zach Gilbert, a specialist for the Midland Development Corp., which is supported by local sales taxes. “We called up XCOR. We were already second on their list.”

The company should employ about 100 people in Midland once fully staffed.

“They already have employees in Midland,” he said. “They should start occupying some of the space in July. People are very excited.”

Pamela Welch, executive director of the Midland Development Corp., isn’t looking for the space ventures to change the local economy, which still revolves around oil and gas, despite the recent price slump.

More than 40 of about 50 businesses listed under “existing industry” on the corporation’s website are related to the energy industry in some way.

“Our mission is to diversify the economy,” Welch said. “It gives our children a chance to branch out and look to Midland for jobs.”

Local incentives for XCOR included what Gilbert called “substantial” renovations to an unused airport hangar, as we’ll as the construction of the Orbital facility.

He could not immediately provide details for how much has been spent on the improvements. The city continues to own the hangar and leases it to the company, he said.

When the XCOR flights begin, its aircraft will take-off and land horizontally – similar to conventional airplanes.

An FAA report on the commercial space tourism industry described the XCOR aircraft as “roughly the size of a small private plane, with the capability to fly several times a day, using engines that burn non-toxic bi-propellants, allowing the operating costs to remain low.”

Campen said passengers on the flights will reach supersonic speeds within one minute of takeoff.

Will McCarren, head business development for Orbital, recently moved to Midland, a place he said has an “amazing” small-business climate.

He said XCOR, along with Virgin Galactic, lead the space tourism market at this point.

Even though danger lurks over the industry – the co-pilot of a test flight for Virgin Galactic’s space-travel business died and the pilot was injured in 2014 – McCarren said he’s hoping to get a ride on an XCOR craft as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, folks in Midland are ready to watch planes streaking across the skies.

In California, the company’s test flights have reportedly attracted thousands of audience members, Ruff said.

“So it could have an impact. It’s generating a lot of interest,” she said.

John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Texas newspapers. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com.