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Ready to launch

Wallops Island could benefit from a private-sector space race.

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Print this page by Robert Burke

When the Taurus II rocket soars into space next year from a launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Island just a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s going to be a show unlike any that Virginia’s Eastern Shore has ever seen.

At 131 feet and 320 tons, the Taurus II is bigger by far than any of the thousands of smaller unmanned rockets launched from Wallops since its creation in 1945.  Construction began last year on a new concrete launch pad that’s connected to what looks like a highway on-ramp. It will be used to roll the rocket into place. A few hundred yards away is a new building for assembling the rocket pieces now being built and tested at other sites. The entire rocket will be put together while lying on its side and then raised upright on the pad.

Then, if all goes as planned, it will lift off in a dramatic trail of fire as it soars toward the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth about 200 miles above the planet’s surface. The rocket will bring as much as 7,000 kilograms (15,400 pounds) of supplies, such as food and oxygen and equipment for maintenance or new experiments.

The announcement in 2008 that Dulles-based Orbital Sciences had chosen Wallops and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) — a project shared by Virginia and Maryland — for the Taurus project was welcome news.  It came with the promise that Orbital would create 125 high-paying jobs, with another 230 or so indirect jobs expected as well.

Over the next five years, the company will make eight launches of the Taurus II from Wallops, as part of a $1.9 billion contract Orbital has with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

The Orbital deal is nice, and there are even bigger prizes out there. The decades-long effort to let the private sector handle much of what NASA has traditionally done is gaining momentum. The Obama administration gave the idea a big push this year in its NASA budget proposal, which calls for outsourcing to private companies the delivery of supplies — and maybe some day crew members — to the space station.

That’s opening up the potential for huge economic gains for states ready to seize the chance, and Virginia is hoping the Taurus project is a sign of things to come. Florida and California are probably its toughest competition. Florida’s Cape Canaveral tried hard to win the Taurus launch deal, hoping to recoup some job losses as NASA winds down the Space Shuttle program.

Another company looking at Wallops is Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace. It’s designing the first privately owned space station that it hopes to launch four years from now. Customers most likely would be nations without space programs. Michael Gold, director of the company’s Washington office, has been to Wallops to explore the idea of using the Atlas V launch system — co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. 

Bigelow currently launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. “Potentially bringing human space flight to Virginia would be frankly the largest economic impact to hit the state in a generation,” says Gold. “We have a very strong interest in Wallops and utilizing it … and avoiding the red tape you might face in Florida.”

Only four U.S. spaceports are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to send rockets into orbit — the others are Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Kennedy Space Flight Center at Cape Canaveral and the Alaska Space Flight Authority in Kodiak. So Virginia has a foothold, but that’s about it.

Wallops is located on a barrier island near Chincoteague in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. It has long been a poor stepchild inside NASA when it comes to high-profile programs, even though it employs about 1,700 people. However, that’s changing. “The commonwealth is a leader,” says Billie Reed, executive director of the MARS facility. “But we can’t sit on our laurels. We don’t have laurels to sit on.”

Virginia’s space-related industry extends beyond Wallops and Orbital Sciences. Langley Research Center, NASA’s oldest field center, is based in Hampton. Reston-based International Launch Services in July helped put an EchoStar satellite into orbit from a launch site in Kazakhstan. Since 2001, Space Adventures, based in Vienna,  has arranged for seven wealthy clients to visit the International Space Station by flying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. And Northrop Grumman Corp., which will move its headquarters to Fairfax County next year, produces sensors for space-based missions, including the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and the Defense Support Program.

Virginia has put some effort into supporting a commercial space sector, anchored by NASA Wallops. In 2004, governors Bob Erlich of Maryland and Mark Warner of Virginia created the MARS partnership. And in recent years the General Assembly passed two laws to make the state more friendly to space transportation companies. The 2007 Virginia Space Liability and Immunity Act gives companies some legal shelter in the event of a mishap, and the Zero G Tax Act of 2008 provides an exemption to companies doing business in the state with plans to launch from MARS or to do spaceflight training.

The FAA praised Virginia as “the most progressive state in the country” for its tort reform. Plus, the state provided $26 million in bond financing for the improvements needed for the Taurus II launch, with much of that to be repaid by Orbital.

Reed, however, thinks the state could do more. “I’ve only got seven people, for Pete’s sake. Alaska launches a bottle rocket every year or so, and they’ve got 45 people” employed in their space authority, he says. “We’ve got to get on with it.”

Reed’s connections with the public and private sectors have been a big advantage. In 2006 he was involved in Orbital’s negotiations on using the MARS facilities at Wallops for launching an Air Force-built TacSat-2 satellite on its smaller Minotaur rocket. So when Orbital engineers started looking for a place to do a test of its Taurus II, they already knew Reed and spaceport manager Rick Baldwin. “The Air Force loved the fact that they basically had just two people to talk to,” says Laurie Naismith, director of government relations for MARS.

Wallops has another advantage — its location. Rockets launched from Wallops go south over the Atlantic Ocean, passing over part of Brazil before reaching orbit. A launch from Florida has to go north and then cross over western Europe. As private-sector companies get involved in their own space race, insurance companies likely will prefer the safer route over water. “There’s not a better spot on the globe to get to the International Space Station than from our launch pads,” Naismith says. Orbital also also noted that launches from Wallops are less likely to be bumped by NASA missions. Plus, MARS and Wallops staffers pitch their location as a good fit for entrepreneurs. “We have a low-cost rapid response, and that’s what the commercial sector wants,” says Amy G. Bull, director of the Wallops Research Park.

If Wallops and the MARS facility can begin to draw more companies, the research park is a likely spot for them to settle. Opened last year, it has 202 acres next to Wallops. BaySys International, a 280-employee company that customizes wide-body jets (see story on page 24) plans to build a $25 million hangar at the park with access to Wallops’ 8,000-foot-long runway. It now leases a NASA hangar on Wallops property, but that building is too small and security makes it difficult to give access to clients, especially those from outside the U.S. “The park offers the opportunity to be right there where all this activity is going on, yet not inside the gates where you have all the security concerns,” Bull says. “We want opportunities in Accomack County. We want family-wage jobs and we want people who go away to college to be able to come back and [find] a job.”

Nonetheless, the push to privatize some of NASA’s functions and get the private sector involved in both unmanned and manned space exploration is encountering opposition in Congress. Members from states with NASA facilities are fighting efforts to reduce some its programs to make room for private-sector contracts like the Taurus II.

The House response to Obama’s NASA budget is less supportive of commercial development in space than is the Senate bill that passed the Finance Committee in late July. Sen. Mark Warner proposed an amendment that would have restored funding for the commercial crew program to the levels Obama proposed, but it wasn’t included in the final version.

John Gedmark, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, called the Senate bill “a good first step” that would get NASA working the bigger challenges of space exploration. “It should not be in the business of just operating this regular trucking business to [supply] the space station,” he says. Let companies like Orbital and Space X and others do that work, he says. “The private sector is willing to put its money in … it’s really a win-win.”

Bigelow Aerospace’s Gold says critics of the Obama NASA budget are wrong to question the safety and experience of companies wanting to get involved in human space transportation. They’ve been doing the work for years already under NASA’s direction, he says. “All we’re really talking about is a change of procurement practice, from cost-plus to fixed price,” he says. “This is not entrusting the nation’s future to fly-by-night entities.”

He’s especially annoyed at GOP members who praise free enterprise but won’t support it for space travel. “If your party is about leveraging private investment, this president’s proposal does all that,” he says. “If you could fuel a rocket on hypocrisy, the House Republicans would have us on Pluto by now.”

Orbital is waiting with other commercial interests to see what kind of federal dollars will be involved. The company, whose headquarters includes seven buildings in Dulles, is well-positioned for now, with both private-sector work and government contracts, including a recently announced five-year deal with NASA worth up to $310 million. And it’s comfortable working out of Wallops. “We’ve launched out of Wallops far more often than anybody else, and we have an excellent relationship with the onsite staff,” spokesman Barron Beneski says.

The long-term continuation of that relationship could be a key element in the growth of Virginia’s aerospace industry, which, including the aviation sector, now numbers 350 companies.  Randy Burdette, executive director of the Virginia Department of Aviation, has started a study with Virginia Commonwealth University to measure exactly how much economic impact those companies have in the state and hopes the information will help him push for more state support.

“When the governor talks about economic engines [in Virginia] he frequently talks about Dulles International Airport and the Virginia Port Authority,” Burdette says. “We think the third leg of that could be Wallops Island. Fifteen or 20 years from now, what can it be for Virginia, what can it be for the country? We need to think big.”

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