Orbital, Va. Settle Lawsuit Over Launch Pad Costs

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WASHINGTON — Virginia has agreed to take ownership of the vehicle that hauls Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket out to its Wallops Island, Va., launchpad under a settlement to a lawsuit the company filed against the state in September.

Orbital sued Virginia Sept. 24 in the Richmond Circuit Court, seeking money it paid to cover cost overruns during construction of the state-owned Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port at Wallops. Orbital was seeking $16.5 million, plus interest, from the state, which runs the spaceport through the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.

“The dispute has been settled,” Dale Nash, the authority’s executive director, said in a Feb. 19 interview. “We are moving forward. There were a lot of challenges as we built this thing, and the scope grew, and the cost grew, [but] we have settled the last major disagreement.”

Barron Beneski, a spokesman for Dulles, Va.-based Orbital, confirmed that the suit had been settled out of court, and said the company was now focused on “moving forward” with the seven remaining Antares missions it committed to launch from Virginia under a memorandum of understanding signed in 2012.

Neither Beneski nor Nash would disclose the terms of the settlement beyond saying that Virginia would take ownership of the Transporter Erector Launcher, the massive vehicle that carries Antares from its hangar to the launch pad. Orbital is using Antares to launch resupply missions to the international space station.

The transporter was one of several assets Orbital bought from the state back in 2010 to provide a $42 million cash infusion for the overbudget Pad 0A, which gave Wallops the ability to launch liquid-fueled rockets.

The state, in accordance with its 2012 memorandum of understanding with Orbital, was supposed to buy these assets back from the company, which under the same agreement agreed to launch 10 Antares missions from Pad 0A and pay Virginia $1.5 million per launch. Orbital has so far launched three of these missions.

Virginia, which is trying to attract other launch services providers to Pad 0-A, repurchased most of the assets but balked at taking back the transporter. Virginia officials said the vehicle could not be used with other rockets without substantial, and expensive, modifications.

Orbital disagreed, and the mediator brought in to settle the argument, the U.S. government-funded think tank the Aerospace Corp., took the company’s side. Still, Virginia refused to pay up, leading Orbital to seek redress from the courts.

According to Nash, it ultimately cost about $90 million to build Pad 0A. Virginia funded its share with a combination of bonds and grants issued between 2009 and 2013. Orbital provided the remainder — most of which the state has now reimbursed — via the equipment buy-back that began in 2010.