Virginia is for Launches

In a big boost to Virginia’s aeronautical and space industries (and economy), NASA has awarded a contract to Northern Virginia’s Orbital Sciences Corporation to resupply the International Space Station.

The federal space agency on Tuesday said it will provide Orbital Sciences Corp. as much as $170 million to demonstrate its capability to resupply the space station.

Orbital officials say they plan to team with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and the state’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport to demonstrate a new launch rocket in late 2010. If they succeed, the Eastern Shore could become a key outpost for commercial space operations, bringing jobs and investment to the region.

"This is a real opportunity to see that happen," said Billie Reed, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority and head of the spaceport, known as MARS. "This is significant."

Since December 2006, the fledging spaceport has hosted two successful launches into low-Earth orbit for Pentagon customers, and both featured a Minotaur I rocket developed by Orbital.

This isn’t just a boom for Orbital; it could mean significant investment in Virginia’s space industry and its Wallops infrastructure:

To handle cargo missions to the space station, Orbital is developing a much bigger rocket, called the Taurus II. It would be the largest rocket ever launched from Wallops, said Barry Beneski, an Orbital spokesman.

Because of that, the launch facilities at MARS would have to be upgraded to accommodate the larger vehicle. If those improvements aren’t made, Orbital would have to look elsewhere, probably in Florida, for a launch site, Beneski said.

"We’re supporters of Wallops, and we’re supporters of developing the space industry in Virginia," Beneski said, "but infrastructure development is really the key."

Reed said state leaders plan to meet with Orbital executives this week to discuss the needs. "It’s not a show-stopper," he said, adding that the spaceflight authority is empowered to issue bonds to finance improvements. "We can find ways to do this."

NASA Wallops provides mission control and logistics support to MARS. The Eastern Shore launch site is considered ideal. Its latitude is aligned to the space station’s orbit, reducing fuel expenses, and rockets quickly travel over the ocean, limiting risks to populated areas.

"This shows the industry that what we have to offer here is real," said Keith Koehler, spokesman for the flight facility. "We’re excited."

Besides NASA’s investment, Orbital plans to pitch in $150 million of company money to the effort, known as COTS, for commercial orbital transportation services. NASA’s aim is to contract with private aerospace companies to resupply the station after the agency retires the space shuttle program in 2010.

Orbital is still flying high after the announcement. Shares are up more than 50 cents and profit is expected to rise by as much as 25 percent.