WALLOPS ISLAND — With space station resupply launches expected to resume in August and a runway under construction for testing drone flights, Virginia is looking at another opportunity to lure a major federal research program to the state’s expanding spaceport complex on this Eastern Shore barrier island .
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is expected to begin looking for a place to base a new “science and technology testing ground” for unmanned vehicle systems — operating in the air and underwater — and boosters say the regional spaceport would be an ideal fit.
“What better place to do it than here?” said Peter Bale, chairman of the Wallops Island Regional Alliance, as members of the House Appropriations Committee visited last week.
The federal agency has not yet issued a request for information for an unmanned vehicle testing ground, but officials for the alliance and the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority already are trying to ensure that Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard have a long-term home at the 3,000-foot state runway for testing “unmanned vehicle systems” that is expected to be finished in December.
Virginia also is making a big push with its congressional delegation in partnership with Maryland and Delaware to persuade the U.S. Navy to base a portion of its new Triton drone fleet at the Wallops Flight Facility operated by NASA since the mid-1940s.
“It’s becoming a very strong coalition,” said Dale Nash, executive director of the state space authority, also known as Virginia Space, which operates the regional spaceport on the southern end of the island and plans to open the new runway at the northern end of Wallops early next year.
Nash led members of the appropriations committee on a brief tour of the spaceport, including the state-owned launch pad rebuilt after an Antares rocket bound on a supply mission to the International Space Station crashed just after takeoff on Oct. 28, 2014, causing $15 million in damage.
Virginia shared the cost of the repairs with NASA and Orbital ATK, the Dulles-based company that is carrying out commercial resupply missions to the ISS through 2024 under two contracts, with the second round of launches awarded in January.
“The launch pad looks better than it ever has been,” Nash told legislators during the tour of the spaceport.
Antares rocket test
Orbital ATK successfully tested the first stage of the Antares rocket with its new engines last month, which the company said validated the performance of the vehicle and pad. The new engines replace older refurbished engines blamed for a catastrophic failure almost two years ago.
The recently tested Antares first stage stood on the pad during the committee visit, but it will be taken away to be readied for a future mission and replaced by another Antares vehicle being prepared in a NASA-owned processing facility for the upcoming launch.
“We’re looking for the rocket to fly in mid-August probably,” Nash said.
Virginia leases the land for the spaceport from NASA under a renewing five-year agreement, but the state has made major investments to the facility, especially its two launch pads, which cost the state more than $100 million. The state also dedicates $15.8 million a year in transportation funds for the spaceport.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe renegotiated the state’s contract with Orbital ATK last year to ensure that the company insures the launch pad against future damage. The administration of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell dropped the insurance requirement from the original contract when it was renegotiated in 2012, according to a recent report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission that was critical of state contracting practices.
But Virginia has not backed off from investing in the spaceport or expanding its footprint on the barrier island. In the 2015 fiscal year, it committed $5.8 million to build the runway for unmanned aerial systems research. The next state budget allows the authority to use $500,000 from its annual appropriation to build a temporary hanger next to the runway.
Customers include federal defense-related agencies, as well as private, commercial interests. Those agencies include an alphabet soup of federal acronyms — DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, created after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space in 1957; NAVAIR, or the U.S. Navy Air Systems Command; and SOCOM, the U.S. Special Operations Command.
One of the biggest likely customers is the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Coast Guard, a longtime resident of Wallops and Virginia’s Atlantic Coast.
The Coast Guard owns a dock on the north end of the island, where unmanned submersible vehicles, either tethered to a ship or independently operated, could be based for the research program that Homeland Security reportedly is considering.
The advantages of Wallops as a possible base have everything to do with location — proximity to the Pentagon by a quick flight and what Bale called “a discreet operating environment,” including restricted air space and waters for testing.
“They do not and cannot operate in an unsecure environment,” he explained.
‘Super secret stuff’
Bale’s association is based in nearby Chincoteague, but its members include about 15 major corporations, including Northrop Grumman, the producer of the new Triton drones for the Navy, which is likely to choose a base within the next year. The Navy is considering a base on the Eastern Shore mainland that is part of the NASA Wallops facility, as well as bases in Mayport and Key West, Fla.
“The regional alliance has taken on a coordinating role with a lot of different things,” Bale said.
The state space flight authority is trying to take advantage of the opportunities offered by federal initiatives, which help secure the future of the Wallops facility and boost the economy of the Virginia shore.
The question is, how much could it cost the state to provide the facilities necessary to anchor those programs?
Pressed by legislators about the authority’s wish list,
Nash said the spaceport lacks a facility that can process scientifically sophisticated satellites for space launches, including projects that entail highly classified government information.
While NASA owns a facility at Wallops for assembling rockets and their payloads, it can’t handle all components in one place for some classified and scientific missions, Nash said.
A new payload processing facility would cost about $23 million, the biggest price tag of projects on the Virginia Space wish list. The list also includes up to $2.5 million for a permanent hanger at the runway for potential customers — including Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and other corporate and government entities — and $3 million to establish a dock complex for testing underwater systems.
“The processing facility is probably the most important,” said Del. Robert Bloxom, R-Accomack, who helped guide the appropriations committee on the retreat. “It opens it up to super-secret stuff.”
Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr. said the McAuliffe administration is encouraging the space authority to explore options for expanding the state facility and stimulating economic development in the region.
“It’s an effort to bring a real business plan for the spaceport,” Layne said. “It’s what can we do to leverage our existing facility.”
However, the secretary made clear that money for new facilities wouldn’t come from the state’s transportation fund.
“Any of these requests would not be transportation revenues,” he said.
That leaves the budget’s general fund, which is why visits to the spaceport by the appropriations committee last week and the Senate Finance Committee in April are important to future funding requests.
“There is a lot more going on out there than one might think,” said Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.
The spaceport will have to make its business case for more state support, Jones said, but “I think there’s real potential there.”
Quelle: Roanoke Times, Roanoke, VA