Midland’s New Spaceport Aims to Make Space Travel Accessible to All

And the University of Texas system is educating a new workforce in aerospace engineering.

By Lana StraubDecember 28, 2016 9:45 am|

Drive down a windy, muddy road, hidden on the backside of Midland airport’s southernmost tarmac, and you’ll find a shiny new hangar and office building: XCOR Aerospace’s Texas headquarters.

Most people associate the Permian Basin with oil and gas. But some Midlanders are hoping to make the region synonymous with space travel. Two years ago, Midland’s airport became the first commercial airport also licensed for flights into space. Today, it’s called Midland International Air and Spaceport.

Midland Native and City Councilman J. Ross Lacy, president of the Spaceport Development Corporation, says this is just the beginning of a new era for the city.

“We are the only commercially operated air and spaceport in the world,” Lacy says. “We are the only one where you can fly in on Southwest but then also take off on a horizontal take off of a spacecraft. No other place in the world can say that.”

He says the Permian Basin has always been known for its pioneering spirit. Lacy hopes the Midland International Air and Spaceport will continue that tradition by helping Midlanders reach the heavens or get a job as one of the airport’s aerospace business tenants.

Currently, those include spacesuit manufacturer Orbital Outfitters and XCOR – they’re a private space travel company, and they design and manufacture rocket engines.

In the XCOR promotional video, the company lays out their goal.

XCOR’s president, Jay Gibson, recently relocated their facility to Midland from Mohave, California. He says Midland’s spaceport opens up a wide range of opportunities for the public to get involved in space travel. Gibson thinks other aerospace companies will follow.

“Recently you saw Sierra Nevada say that they’ve chosen Midland to be one of the alternative sites, or landing sites, for the Dreamchaser,” Gibson says. “That’s just a very very early indicator that the Midland Spaceport is relevant.”

To help XCOR find its local workforce, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin created an Aerospace degree program and began enrolling students in August of 2016. UTPB says they’ll soon break ground on new facility at the spaceport. Aerospace Engineer, Redha Wahidi heads the department.

“We are building state-of-the-art labs in aerospace engineering. We’ve started receiving some of the equipment we’ve ordered,” Wahidi says. “So in a year or so, this department will look significantly different in terms of capabilities and quality of education.”

Ross Lacy says the greater University of Texas system is helping to bolster the new Aerospace program.

“We got an additional $250,000 grant from the UT system to help with [Wahidi’s] laboratory and his experiments,” he says. “It’s an exciting time as we see an immense interest from the younger generation that want to start getting aerospace engineering degrees.”

UTPB Senior Shawn Ellis is part of the program. He says he can’t wait to graduate and put his degree to work, helping get people into space.

“I definitely think it brings a lot more possibilities to the area, especially when we’ve had XCOR engineers come and talk about what they are testing,” he says. “It’s really fascinating and I hope to hear more about it.”

Lacy says space travel isn’t their only goal. The spaceport also hopes to give Midlanders supersonic international flights.

“This is an evolving industry. If you had told me when I was born in Midland, Texas 34 years ago that I’d be President of a spaceport, that just wasn’t imaginable at that time,” Lacy says. “We’re hopeful that next year we will start our partnership with Prestwood, Scotland, forming the very first international spaceport agreement between two spaceports – which has never been done in the world. It’s taking that type of out-of-the-box thinking to move this.”

As the spaceport continues to mature, Midlanders can truly begin to live up to their motto – “The Sky’s the Limit.”