By: The Honorable Jack Kennedy
Virginia Chamber The Voice
In the afterglow of success of billionaire business entrepreneur Elon Musk’s launch of California-based SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket booster carrying the Dragon spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station; Virginia’s spaceport will soon be the site of the alternative Antares booster set for the first static (hold down) test-firing of the booster’s twin engines along the coast of Virginia.
The testing firing of the first liquid rocket engines will send thunderous sound waves across the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and areas around Accomack County’s Eastern Shore. It will be the pounding of the future of commercial space opportunity knocking on the doorstep of Virginia, the former 19th century home of Gov. Henry Wise, advising everyone 21st century spaceflight has arrived.
The Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation will be the second operational provider of a commercial cargo transport capability to the International Space Station from the Wallops Island, launching in early 2013, then commencing regular flights to orbit in six-month intervals aboard the multimillion dollar Antares booster-Cygnus spacecraft under a $1.9 billion NASA contract. Only then, will Virginia “be seen” as having broken the barrier of a regular transportation carrier hub to the International Space Station.
Virginia’s spaceport is also providing a launch opportunity for the civil space sector. The NASA LADEE robotic mission to orbit and explore exo-atmospheric dust of the Moon will head to space from Wallops Island in 2013. As an aside, the launch of a lunar robotic mission to the moon from the Commonwealth offers unique STEM-education public outreach throughout the state, starting in our middle schools — growing moon and asteroid miners of the coming future.
Military launch contracts will continue from the spaceport island over the next two-years for the United States Air Force, demonstrating NASA Wallops Flight Range capacity and capability to support an increased orbital space launch tempo. Commercial space launch firms need a secure atmosphere and telemetry for flying to orbit: the NASA WFF provides for a fee, along with a launch fee to the spaceport’s state governing authority for use of either a solid or liquid booster launch pad.
The NASA Wallops Flight Facility and the operational Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, together, form a unique federal-state partnership under federal Space Act Agreements (SAAs). The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority leases real estate for the launch pads from NASA on which the state has invested in space launch infrastructure over the past decade. Nonetheless, critical business decisions lie ahead.
On Capitol Hill, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va) and Senator Barbara Mulinski (Md), chair the respective subcommittees of appropriations, which determine sums of US taxpayer funds to allot for development of the multi-million dollar human commercial crew program and federal space launch facilities. Both have been champions of the spaceport in Congressional hearings, along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va), serving on the Senate Commerce space subcommittee.
The four NASA-funded commercial crew development programs will likely face down-selected to three, perhaps two in the short months ahead. SpaceX clearly has earned a berth in the continued development of commercial crew capability. Unfortunately, the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s “Prometheus” mini-shuttle commercial crew option was less favored than the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” – which started as the HL-20 prototype first developed at Hampton’s NASA Langley Research Center.
With the exception of SpaceX Falcon-9 booster, the remaining viable commercial crew development firms will be reliant upon the United Launch Alliance Atlas-V 402 or 412 configurations for the liquid booster to access Earth orbit. Boeing has the Crew Space Transportation (CTS-100) capsule in-development with Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada, a provider of inflatable commercial long-term human-capable space habitats. Bigelow now has several MOUs with foreign governments for ‘hang time’ (long-term weightlessness) in space by international commercial researchers, following successful legal navigation of US State Department regulations.
If Virginia’s space transportation hub is to advance beyond cargo and satellites to human-to-orbit capability or, human-on-suborbital flight capability, decisions made in the months ahead will set the spaceport on a strategic business trajectory.
Virginia’s human space flight informed consent and the ‘ZeroTax-ZeroGravity’ legal regime has helped place Virginia in a leadership role, best evidenced by a Federal Aviation Administration report two-years ago citing Virginia as “Agent of Change” relating to commercial space flight activities in the nation.
Since the 2007 enactment of the Virginia human space flight informed consent, Florida, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado have adopted similar state laws. California is now debating a spaceflight informed consent measure in its state Senate following a 73-0 vote by the state House of Representatives; Hawaii and Alabama may follow. Each state seeks to become a part of the coming era of human space flight and the harnessing of space access as growing parts of regional domestic US economics.
Competitive fear recently drove Space Florida to file negative statements into public comment on a federal environmental impact statement of human spaceflight-capable boosters from Wallops Island. The multi-billion dollar aerospace state decries the potential of Virginia’s spaceport hub as unworthy for the coming competitive human spaceflight culture.
State policy, however, sends a clear signal to other states. Virginia is policy-serious about human spaceflight from the New Dominion. The 21st century Gov. Bob McDonnell’s unflagging support of the spaceport budget has poised the facility to send thunderous ‘fire in the sky’ from Virginia’s Eastern Shore — regularly carrying cargo to low earth orbit and to the moon.
As Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton recently noted, Virginia has competition to make our spaceport “the nation’s preferred destination for commercial aerospace activity.” Transportation hubs to space are rapidly becoming an entrepreneurial race among America’s private sector firms and aerospace states.
Like the Irish boys of yesteryear, Virginia commercial space advocates have come to a high wall that seems impassable. Some may consider turning back, ending the journey, or at least, slowing to the point of commercial cargo. Nevertheless, McDonnell and Connaughton have flung their caps over the impassable space access wall. Now Virginia has no choice but to continue the challenge. Like the Pilgrims from Europe coming to the Eastern Shore, modernity demands that as Virginians, we enable the entrepreneurial reach for black sky.
Spaceflight (commercial cargo or humans) launched from Virginia may well be dependent upon the upcoming success of the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares. A multi-national collaboration of space technology providers, the vehicle is a serious middle-class booster in the commercial space launch sector and capable of carrying significant payloads to orbit. Unfortunate for the re-entry of the Cygnus spacecraft, there is not a return from orbit, as needed for human capability, at least not yet.
We shall get there too, in time.
Jack Kennedy, an attorney and a former member of the state Senate, resides in Wise, Va. He holds a M.S. in Space Policy and serves as a gubernatorial appointee to the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority board of directors.