Virginia May Seek Federal Funds for Wallops Spaceport Repairs

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WASHINGTON — After the failure of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket caused as much as $20 million in damage to a state-owned launch pad, Virginia’s two U.S. senators said they may seek federal funds to cover repair costs.

In a joint statement provided by their offices on Nov. 20, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, said they would work with members of both parties in the House and Senate to identify funding to pay for the damage to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia.

“Sens. Warner and Kaine are working with their colleagues from both parties, both chambers, and both states to see if there may be federal resources available to help rebound from this setback,” the statement said. MARS is a joint venture of the states of Maryland and Virginia.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Nov. 18 that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, had asked the senators for funding to cover the repair costs to the spaceport. A spokesman for the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Pad 0A at MARS was damaged after an Antares rocket suffered an engine malfunction less than 15 seconds after liftoff Oct. 28. The rocket fell back to the ground near the pad and exploded.

In a Nov. 20 interview, Dale Nash, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, said the spaceport was still finalizing damage assessments to the pad infrastructure, but believed it had a good handle on what repairs were needed and their costs. “The estimate is probably no more than $20 million,” he said.

Much of the planned repairs, he said, involves concrete and other structural damage to the pad, as well as plumbing and related systems. “A lot of electrical systems and sensors are fried,” he said.

Among the most visible damage to the site involves the four lightning towers, resembling tall flagpoles, surrounding the pad. Two of the four poles fell in the explosion, Nash said, and all four will likely be replaced.

Many other key elements of the pad, though, escaped damage in the accident. “All the tankage seems to be in good shape,” he said. “The water tower also appears to be in good shape.”

Nash was optimistic that the damage could be repaired well in advance of the next launch. “There’s really nothing that we don’t know how to rebuild,” he said. “There’s not too much that should keep us from supporting the schedule that Orbital has for a launch in early 2016.”

In a Nov. 5 conference call, Orbital officials said they were accelerating the development of an upgraded version of the Antares with new first-stage engines, which they plan to have ready for a first launch in 2016. The company has yet to disclose its choice of engine that will replace the AJ-26 engine used previously on the Antares first stage and linked to the Oct. 28 failure.

Orbital is still conducting an assessment of damage to its own equipment at the launch pad, company spokesman Barron Beneski said Nov. 21. He confirmed comments by Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson in the Nov. 5 conference call that the cost to repair or replace any company-owned equipment at the pad will be covered by insurance.