When space shuttle veteran Dale Nash got the call in 2012 to run the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, tensions were already on the rise with the state-funded organization’s anchor customer, Orbital Sciences Corp.
Construction of a launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., for Orbital’s Antares rocket, developed as part of the agency’s effort to create commercial logistics services for the international space station, was behind schedule and over budget. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital, eager to collect on its $1.9 billion ISS Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, had to kick in some of its own money to see the project through to completion.
Orbital has since launched the liquid-fueled Antares rocket three times, all successfully, from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops, including the first CRS mission. Orbital also continues to launch the various versions of its solid-fueled Minotaur rocket from Pad 0B at the spaceport.
In February, Virginia and Orbital settled a lawsuit that the company filed seeking redress for the money it had to spend to finish building Pad 0A and related infrastructure, which ultimately cost $90 million. Exact terms of the settlement were not disclosed, although the state did agree to buy back a rocket transport vehicle that had come into the company’s possession by virtue of its funding outlays.
With the lawsuit behind them, Orbital and MARS are getting down to the business of launching the remainder of the company’s CRS contract while seeking additional business for Antares. That includes follow-on station-logistics business with NASA. Nash also is looking to bring other launch services providers to the spaceport, which he says is already having a positive economic impact on the sleepy surrounding region.
Nash, who formerly ran Alaska’s spaceport authority, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.
What’s the point of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority? Or of any state spaceflight authority?
I think it all started with the Commercial Space Act, where the federal government encouraged states to get into space to try to bring the price down and encourage commercial capability and also build redundancy into our space systems.
Do you think today’s reality reflects Congress’ intent?
At the time the law was passed, Iridium, Globalstar and others believed we were going to paint the sky black with satellites out there. Then cellular technology took over. But now we seem to be moving back to where the ability to communicate from space may become affordable and that commercial market may develop. Regardless, governments are trying to get launches in the commercial realm to try to bring the cost down and have a fixed price, to get investors to put into it so the government doesn’t have to carry the entire burden. I would say SpaceX and Orbital have delivered on that promise through the Commercial Resupply Services program, so that’s a start.
For now, isn’t MARS completely tethered to Orbital?
Good point. Orbital is the anchor tenant. We hope they’re not the only tenant, but you always want to make your anchor tenant as successful as you can.
It took about three years to build Pad 0A. How long would it take to modify it for rockets besides Antares?
Probably the better part of six months to a year. We certainly don’t want to put Antares out of business while we do modifications, though, so we have to be careful.
What would those modifications cost?
Well, it would certainly be a lot less costly than trying to go and build a new launch pad.
Orbital is interested in using a different engine on Antares, possibly the RD-180 that powers the main stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. Can Pad 0A handle the RD-180?
Not as it exists today, but we could change the pad to support that. One consideration is that we attach the pad umbilicals and things like that to the rocket’s core, not the engine itself. So if Antares’ attachments to the rocket core remain the same, the pad modifications would be easier. But if they have to come back and make significant modifications to the core, that would change things. But the basics are there. Our flame trench can already accommodate RD-180. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the wear and tear on the flame trench. We’ll probably go 10 or 12 launches before we have to do any rework to the launch pad’s flame materials.
What are the near-term growth prospects for MARS?
Well, Antares is the bird in the hand, and we’re supporting Orbital’s efforts on other proposals, governmental and commercial, including their efforts to compete for CRS 2, NASA’s second Commercial Resupply Services contract. But we want to continue to attract other people, where we can.
We’re talking to other launch providers, but we’re under nondisclosure agreements. But, for example, it’s easy to go from MARS’s Pad 0B, which is for solid rockets. In fact, we have plans to modify the pad so it can launch Orbital’s Minotaur 6. If we modify the pad for Minotaur 6, it could also accommodate Lockheed Martin’s Athena or Athena 2. For Pad 0A, we certainly tried to design it such that it could accommodate other liquid-oxygen, kerosene rockets. We’ve also done studies on what it would take to do a hydrogen-fueled rocket, or a methane-fueled rocket.
Any chance of MARS taking over some of the sounding rocket launches NASA flies from Wallops?
No. We’re focused on the Minotaur- and Antares-class launches.
What about launching to geostationary orbit from Wallops?
The ideal place for that would be on the equator, but we can get into the 38-degree to 60-degree integration. There are a lot of satellites that are in that mid-latitude. Besides geostationary orbit, we’re looking very hard with NASA on some sun-synchronous, polar orbits out of Wallops.
Is NASA’s interest serious?
There’s money being spent for them to do the engineering studies on getting some satellites to that orbit from Wallops on an Antares. We have to work out some things with them, like overflight issues, reliability, which flight path we’d have on the way out for a sun-synchronous launch. It is a desirable scientific orbit to be at. You can see things in the same sunlight every day, so you can see if things change: land masses, movement of equipment, whatever else.
Is there a way to quantify the economic benefit MARS has had on the Maryland-Virginia Eastern Shore area?
You have about 120 people working there between MARS and Orbital at Wallops who were not there before. About 60 for MARS, half of whom are contractors. Orbital has the other 60. These are pretty good-paying jobs. We also buy a lot of services. Our reach is certainly in the Virginia and Maryland areas. We reach back down to the Hampton Roads, Va., area quite a bit. Actually, we reach back down to Florida a lot more than you might think. And we utilize suppliers in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so there is an impact on the economy from the jobs, there’s an impact from the supply chain that’s continuing to move closer. As we continue to grow, everyone wants the supplies more cost-effective, and “more cost-effective” usually means “up close.”
Have any parts of your supply chain already moved to the Wallops area?
There’s Precision Fabrication and Cleaning — they came from Florida, and they’re experts on cryogenic systems. Many of their people are essentially residents up here; they’ve been on for about two-and-a-half years. They’ll probably become a permanent resident near Wallops. We also have General Physics, which does the independent certification of our systems, the pressure vessels, for example. NASA ultimately signs off on that work, but we have General Physics as our independent engineering certifier. And we have other, smaller contracts that we use two or three people for precision engineering, welding and fabrication, things like that.
Did any former space shuttle workers migrate to Virginia after the program ended in 2011?
Migratory rocket worker: Have skills, will travel. There’s a pretty good core of our workforce who are Florida people. We have this remarkable workforce that has been impacted in a very big way by the shutdown of the shuttle. Some of those, not a lot, we’re talking smaller numbers, but a key group of Florida people with 25, 30 years of experience are working for us at MARS, or are subcontractors in Virginia. And we’re building around that with a lot of smart, young talent out of the local area.
Did you move these people permanently to Virginia?
Some. You find people who are older and don’t necessarily want to sell their home in Florida but want to work another five or 10 years. So they’ll come up here and live. It isn’t driving back and forth every weekend. They are paid in Virginia, or Maryland, live here, and will go back once every couple of months. We have some subcontractors who, as we surge, will bring in people from Florida who will go back there. But we’ll keep a presence of subcontractors here, and some of those are actually looking at establishing long-term facilities and shops near Wallops. They want to increase their business wherever they can get it, and Virginia is definitely a growth opportunity for them. Then you have the middle-career folks, people in their 40s or 50s, they need another 10 or 15 years, or 20 years of career, and they are making the relocation to our area permanently.
Is there enough potential launch business out there to support more than one or two commercial spaceports?
I don’t know. But even replenishing the satellite constellations that are already up there, I think there’s definitely a market. There’s also a move toward disaggregation, where instead of just a few large satellites you launch more smaller satellites. If you have a constellation of three or four, and you lose even one, you’ve lost a lot of your capability. Especially from a national security point of view, that’s a significant thing.
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