Ready for launch

Momentum expected to pick up at Wallops Island spaceport

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When SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida in May, it was hailed by NASA as “the beginning of a new era.”

That’s because it was the first time a private company had sent a spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station. It was a big step in NASA’s plan to commercialize its low-orbit missions — work that was often handled by the now-retired Space Shuttle — so it can focus on exploring deep space.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion deal with NASA to make a dozen trips to the space station during the next few years. As the rocket soared into the night sky, cheers rose from the SpaceX employees watching the launch on a live video feed at corporate headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.. “For us, it’s like winning the Super Bowl,” CEO Elon Musk told reporters later.

Back in Richmond, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton heard plenty of talk afterward about the launch. “Obviously a lot of people focus on SpaceX,” he says. But Virginia now is aggressively pushing its own plan to grab a share of the commercial space market. “I tell them, ‘Do you realize that in the fall, it’s not going to be SpaceX you’ll be talking about? It’s going to be Orbital.’”

There’s a good chance he’s right. In a few months Dulles-based Orbital Sciences will send its Antares rocket to the space station, from a new launch pad at Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Orbital has its own contract for resupplying the space station, a $1.9 billion deal that it signed with NASA in 2008.

The brand-new launch pad at NASA’s Wallops site is being readied by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a joint Maryland-Virginia venture. It’s a big first step in a plan to grow space-related business in Virginia. The plan goes like this: If Orbital makes money on its contract by delivering the goods for NASA, then other companies looking for a launch site will do the same. More launches will boost the growth of existing space-related industry clusters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, home to the NASA Langley Research Center.

Flashy launches catch the public’s eye, and the Antares launch probably will, too. It will be the biggest rocket ever to launch from Wallops, which still is mostly focused on smaller launches for NASA and Navy-related research. But Connaughton and others hope for more, because a lot of good-paying jobs and investment are coming in the commercial space industry.  He realizes Wallops is never going to compete with Florida’s Cape Canaveral or the space-industry clusters in California.  “We’re not playing Don Quixote here,” he says. “We’re focused on realistic goals that will build on the foundation that we already have.”

Study is a reality check
Virginia got a cold dose of reality last November, though, when it received a 70-page analysis of its Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA), which was created in 1995 to oversee commercial ventures at Wallops. The accounting and consulting firm KPMG conducted the study at Connaughton’s request. It reported that, despite recent excitement about the commercial space industry, there really isn’t a shortage of launch sites, and actual launch demands aren’t that high. So if the state wants to get those launches and be seen as a place where the space industry can take root, it has to step up its game.

“KPMG really laid it out for us,” Connaughton says. The Wallops Island site already has something many customers want, the right geographic location to reach the correct orbit for certain kinds of missions. Recommendations include making improvements to the commercial launch sites at Wallops and pricing services to attract customers. “They recommended we focus in on small- and medium-sized launches within low altitude and mid-altitude [orbit]. So that’s what we’re going to do,” Connaughton says.

The study also called for changing the way the VCSFA is organized, a move the state made this year as a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly. The commonwealth reduced the number of directors on the VCSFA board from 13 to nine. It also guaranteed $9.5 million a year for the next five years from the Commonwealth Transportation Trust Fund, a big increase from the $1.5 million the authority had been getting annually. Some of that money will go toward hiring more full-time staff, Connaughton says.

Plus, last year the General Assembly transferred the authority from the state Department of Commerce and Trade to the Department of Transportation. That change allows the authority to get funding from transportation sources, which Connaughton administers with the Commonwealth Transportation Board. “So it makes funding much more predictable,” he says. Money will be invested over time to build additional launch pads and to market the facilities.

Plus, the state renegotiated an agreement made with Orbital a few years ago regarding ownership of Wallops facilities.

And, it has hired a new executive director, Dale K. Nash, 57, who comes from the Alaska Aerospace Corp., where he was CEO. Nash took over the reins of the space authority July 31, replacing Billie M. Reed, who retired after helping guide the progress of Virginia’s commercial space efforts for 17 years. Nash has 29 years of experience in the aerospace industry. Before his stint in Alaska, he spent 14 years in Florida, including serving as director of launch operations at the Kennedy Space Center. He’s been involved in more than 60 space-shuttle flights.

Nash promises a business-friendly approach, especially with Orbital, the space authority’s prime client. “As Orbital goes, so goes Wallops,” he said in a phone interview in late July from his office in Anchorage. “When companies come to Kodiak [Alaska], we work with them as to how we can do it, as opposed to a big list of requirements that companies tend to have to work with at the big ranges,” he says. “I will bring that to Virginia. The more we launch, the more we can reduce costs and improve performance for others.”

Being able to compete for future launches is critical, because there’s not a huge demand in the near future, according to the KPMG study. Four states now dominate the market for space launches: California, Florida, Alaska and Virginia. The first two have an annual capacity of 12 launches per year, and Alaska and Virginia can do six per year, according to estimates from the Federal Aviation Administration. Commercial demand is expected to be 34 launches this year and then be lower every year through 2020.

An advantage Virginia might have, though, emerges when you add in government and military missions. Those launches at Cape Canaveral take priority over commercial missions and can delay their launches, something those customers would rather avoid.

Nash also points out that the U.S. in general is losing its share of launches. About 80 percent of commercial satellites are launched from sites outside the U.S., in places like French Guiana in South America, site of Europe’s Spaceport. “We used to own that market” for satellite launches, Nash says. “We need to get it back.”

Hampton Roads hopes some of that business will land there. The region has a quarter of the state’s space companies, according to a study by the Performance Management Group at Virginia Commonwealth University. Robert Lindberg, former executive director of the National Institute of Aerospace, says the region plays a unique role in the state’s space industry. Launches take place at Wallops, and there is private-sector technology development going on in Northern Virginia, “but when you start thinking about where does the research occur that makes those systems possible, then you look to the Hampton Roads region.”

Langley is regional anchor
The anchor is NASA Langley. It developed, for example, the technology behind the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment, which successfully tested an inflatable outer shell to protect a spacecraft as it re-entered the atmosphere. That mission was launched out of Wallops in late July. Langley also is a source of expertise for Sierra Nevada, a Colorado-based company working on its Dream Chaser vehicle, which could one day be used to transport crew members back from space. In May the vehicle had its first test flight. The concept for the vehicle was developed by Langley engineers.

This fall, though, eyes will be turning to Wallops as Orbital conducts a series of tests and test launches of its Antares rocket. The Cygnus spacecraft that the rocket will carry is being built at Orbital’s 77-acre campus in Dulles, where it has a manufacturing facility and 600,000 square feet of space. About 1,700 people work there, and it’s where Orbital has its mission command-and-control room for the Antares project.

Orbital is ready to go at Wallops, just waiting for the launch pad to be fully certified by NASA. The work has delayed the Antares launches, but Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski says that’s not unexpected. “This is the first all new, liquid-fuel facility built from the ground up in a couple of decades,” he says. “It’s pretty complex stuff. There really isn’t much you can do to accelerate the schedule beyond getting it built and testing it.”

Orbital plans three events this year. First, a “hold-down” test in which it will fire the liquid-fuel stage of the rocket for about 30 seconds. Then, a test flight of the Antares, and possibly around December, an actual launch to the space station. That demonstration flight will include some practice maneuvers around the space station to show that the Cygnus spacecraft is prepared to dock. “Those are the big milestones,” he says. Plus, next year there will be a lunar mission launched from Wallops. NASA is scheduled to send an orbiter to the moon next May on Orbital’s Minotaur V rocket. The unmanned probe is called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), and it will spend months collecting data in the lunar atmosphere.

Not nearly as spectacular but still important for Virginia is the budget that Connaughton is planning to bring to the General Assembly for its 2013 session. “Money is tight, and the General Assembly wants to ensure that if we invest in commercial space we will see real results,” he says. “So we’re preparing a real business plan. We believe we can have it all when it comes to commercial space. Not just launch facilities, but manufacturing, research and the backroom operations. It exists here already at some level, and our task is to build on it.”

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