Will spaceflight become a commercially-viable business? Jack Kennedy, a member of the board of directors for the Virginia Commercial Spaceport Authority, thinks that the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island near Chincoteague, Va., can turn Virginia into a leader in the field--provided the state and federal governments come up with the support. The long-range economic opportunities, he says, range from space-based solar power to moon-mining, along with the chance for important research breakthroughs.
World Virginia: What does the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport do?
Kennedy: The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA) operates two commercial space launch pads at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility under a NASA Space Act Agreement. The Wallops Flight Facility has a rich history spanning back to 1945 with the launch of thousands of rockets, more than have been launched cumulatively by Cape Canaveral.
The VCSFA has been around since the mid-1990's, a creation of the Virginia state legislature. NASA Wallops is under the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. There are only four FAA-licensed commercial spaceports in the United States with orbital launch capability, e.g. Alaska, California, Florida and Virginia.
The newest launch pad is set to launch an Orbital Sciences Corporation Taurus II booster next year carrying commercial cargo to the International Space Station. If that new booster is successful, NASA has entered into a $1.9 billion contact to launch every six months thereafter, at least through 2015. NASA is also contracted to use one of the pads to launch the Minotaur 5 with a satellite to circle the Moon called LADEE.
There is also advocacy within the Virginia space community for human spaceflight from Wallops Island. There are discussions underway about use of the spaceport by Bigelow Aerospace utilizing the new Boeing CTS-100 atop of an Atlas-V 402 booster rocket.
World Virginia: What are the next steps for spaceflight in Virginia?
Kennedy: The first step is to complete the initial Orbital Sciences Corporation commercial cargo launch from the new launch pad. Success will breed greater commercial space launch opportunities.
The VCSFA will now market the launch pad assets to the relatively small number of firms now capable or soon to be capable of commercial space crew launch campaigns for suborbital or orbital flights.
Frankly, it is important to communicate to the niche commercial space launch sector that the orbital inclination and azimuth from the Wallops Island launch pads are on par, if not actually better than other facilities, for launches to the International Space Station. Wallops Island may require less fuel to get more payload to orbit at less cost per pound than Florida launches. There is no significant advantage to Florida for commercial cargo launches to the space station.
World Virginia: Florida residents are upset because they've funneled a lot of funds into NASA, based out of Florida, and now they feel betrayed by NASA programs going to other states. Do they have anything to worry about?
Kennedy: Yes. As Americans we all should worry about the loss of national competitiveness and our ability to produce space technology innovations in the future. Floridians and Virginians, as well as fellow Americans, must realize that we must innovate through competition to bring about lower costs in the commercial space launch sector.
Congress and the President have approved the new multi-billion dollar Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Clearly, there is only one spot in the world that the super-heavy booster will loft the government-designed rocket. That location is the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. That is the site humans will first depart for Mars in the 2030's.
Florida and Virginia will be benchmarking against one another to perfect commercial launch cost rates for low earth orbit operations, perhaps lunar developments.
Two or three commercial space launch carriers operating out of Wallops Island makes sense. America does not have all of its commercial airliners based at a single airport. Virginia wants the ability to compete with Florida in commercial crew and cargo to make us both better competitors on the world stage. Virginia and Florida together will be in competition with China, India, Europe, and Russia for space-based resources ranging from space-based solar power to multi-business sector micro-gravity research to asteroid and lunar mineral exploitation by mid-21st century.
World Virginia: What local impacts are the programs having now on Virginia, and what are the long term impacts?
Kennedy: The commercial cargo and re-supply contract awarded by NASA to Orbital Sciences has created a few hundred jobs within Virginia at both Dulles and Wallops Island. Greater investment by the federal government in commercial crew and cargo contracts and the opening of pure private sector space development provides astounding opportunities to Virginia.
Long-term spin-offs may include Virginia-based technology firms, intellectual property rights for Virginia firms, and the location of businesses to support expanding economic growth opportunities on the surface of the moon by way of robotic and human-tended mineral development. There will be a growing need for biotechnologists, astrophysicists, computer scientists and other well-educated professionals built around futuristic orbital, lunar and asteroid resource plans.
There is risk in failing to invest and lost opportunity costs. I hold the conviction that the Virginia spaceport holds an array of opportunities for the Delmarva Peninsula, for the Tidewater Region, and the 21st century youth who want high-skilled jobs of the 21st century. I actually seek to think not only as a globalist but of a future two-world system.
World Virginia: In 20 years will Virginia be a major spaceport? Where is the industry going?
Kennedy: We can expect to see suborbital human spaceflights out of several states, including but not limited to California, New Mexico, Florida and Virginia. Human spaceflight from Virginia will require much additional space launch infrastructure [and political support from Virginia's Congressional leaders] so that the federal space agency and the commercial space launch sector do not simply default to the political pressures being amassed by SpaceFlorida.
I can imagine lofting humans to transfer stations in orbit to going on to the moon to conduct mineralogy experiments or mining of water, helium-3, or other valuable minerals. Virginia's spaceport has the history, the capability, and the focus to become the hub of American spaceflight in the next 20-years. To reach that goal, however, it will take require more business and government leaders within the state to conceive and believe to achieve, if I may paraphrase Napoleon Hill.
The commercial spaceflight industry is at the point where in the balance of this decade more people will go to space from around the world than have cumulatively in the last fifty years. The second decade of the 21st century will be remembered as if it were the barnstorming days of aviation. The third decade will become known as the period of time where off-earth economics has more tangible meaning beyond telecommunication satellites.