WASHINGTON — An 11-year hiatus in orbital launches from Wallops Island on Virginia’s eastern shore is set to end Dec. 11 with the launch of a Minotaur 1 rocket from a pad owned by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and operated with the help of NASA. The payloads atop the 19-meter rocket, a modified Minuteman ICBM, are the U.S. Air Force’s TacSat-2 experimental optical-imaging satellite and NASA’s GeneSat-1, a 10-kilogram biology lab.

The last time a satellite launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, the mission ended in failure. It was Oct. 23, 1995, and the Conestoga, a commercial rocket fathered by Gemini astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton, was making its debut flight. On board the multi stage rocket, the largest ever to lift off from Wallops, was a small satellite laden with a bundle of microgravity experiments reluctantly sponsored by NASA at the prodding of U.S. lawmakers eager to help the commercial ventures involved in the project.

Forty-six seconds after liftoff, the Conestoga broke apart in mid air, sending its strap-on boosters and debris flying in all directions.

It was Conestoga’s first and only flight and for Wallops the beginning of a big lull in orbital launches now about to end.

Following the Dec. 11 launch, Wallops has two more Minotaur launches slated to occur in 2007: an April launch carrying the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Near Field Infrared Experiment and an October launch carrying TacSat-3.

John Campbell, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said he hopes a string of successful launches would encourage the Air Force to keep launching TacSats from Wallops — either on board Minotaurs or new low-cost rockets like El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 1 — and inspire NASA to take a fresh look at small satellites.

“We think this is a fine example for NASA to see opportunities for getting some of NASA’s small spacecraft rejuvenated and launched once again,” Campbell said.

Many NASA small satellite initiatives, such as the Earth System Science Pathfinder and University-class Explorer programs, have languished in recent years for the want of affordable launch opportunities. NASA has been reluctant to fund new small satellite projects because, kilogram-for-kilogram, they are just too expensive to launch, Campbell said.

“It seems to us that for the small satellite programs to be rejuvenated, missions have got to cost less than $100 million all up, including spacecraft and launch operations,” he said. “That’s really hard to do right now with the commercial launchers available.”

But that could be on the verge of changing, Campbell said, with SpaceX slated to make a second attempt by early next year to prove its $6 million-per-launch Falcon 1, Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler restarting development of the reusable K-1 with the help of NASA money, and Kirkland, Wash.-based AirLaunch LLC getting Pentagon funding to develop the $5 million-per-launch QuickReach booster.

All three companies have expressed interest in the launch facilities on Wallops Island. AirLaunch conducted stage-separation tests with the assistance of Wallops earlier this year and plans to conduct its debut launch from Wallops in late 2008 or early 2009.

In the meantime, Campbell said, there is the Minotaur, which Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. builds from decommissioned Minuteman boosters and its own Pegasus upper stages and sells to the Air Force for about $11.5 million per launch.

A delegation of top NASA officials, including the heads of the agency’s Exploration Systems and Science Mission Directorates and the directors of NASA Ames Research Center and Goddard Space Flight Center, met at Wallops in July to discuss small satellites and the role the coastal Virginia spaceport could play in getting them launched affordably.

“From payload processing, clean rooms and environmental test facilities to the actual gantries and launch pads, we have the whole suite of facilities necessary to do [orbital] launches here as demonstrated by the TacSat mission coming up,” Campbell said.

If NASA ultimately decides now is a good time to start putting small satellites back into the mix, Campbell said Wallops has a couple things going for it, not the least of which is that NASA owns it.

“From a NASA perspective, we’re already paid for,” he said.

In contrast, every time NASA launches a satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida, it pays the Air Force between $1.5 million to $2.5 million in range fees. While that is peanuts when NASA is launching a $500 million satellite on a $150 million rocket, Campbell said, it is a much more significant additional expense if NASA is contemplating launching a $30 million satellite on a $10 million rocket.

Campbell said even if Wallops’ hopes for hosting more orbital launches do not pan out, the 61-year-old facility has plenty of other work to keep it busy.

Wallops runs NASA’s sounding rocket program, developing payloads and conducting about 20 launches a year on site and from locations as far away as Alaska’s Poker Flat Research Range and New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. Wallops personnel and equipment also have been deployed to support launch campaigns in Australia, Brazil, Norway and Sweden. In addition , Wallops launches supersonic sea-skimming Vandal missiles and other target drones for the U.S. Navy.

Navy and NOAA Work

Wallops has launched more than 15,000 rockets, including military target vehicles, since it was established in 1945 by NASA’s predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, to help the researchers who were then pioneering jet flight overcome the limitations of the period’s wind tunnels by putting subscale aircraft models atop high-speed rockets.

During the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo years, Wallops helped test the first manned capsules and played host to the development of the Scout rocket, a small satellite launcher that flew more than 100 missions before its retirement in the early 1990s.

Wallops became part of Goddard Space Flight Center in 1981 and added scientific balloons to a portfolio that already included aircraft still used today to help validate measurements made by NASA Earth-observing satellites.

Flight controllers at Goddard rely on ground stations at Wallops to communicate with NASA’s polar-orbiting satellites. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), however, actually staffs a 100-person command and control center at Wallops to operate the fleet of U.S. geostationary weather satellites.

But it is the Navy that is Wallops’ biggest outside tenant by far, employing 500 of the 1,800 people who work at the flight facility. In addition to launching targets, the Navy operates an Aegis combat training center at Wallops, complete with cruiser and destroyer simulators. The Navy also is developing a new facility to support the next generation U.S. warship, DD(X). The Navy and NOAA combined contribute about $10 million towards Wallop’s $180 million annual budget, Campbell said. Reimbursable projects bring in another $10 million, with NASA covering the rest.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also have a growing presence at Wallops. Among its several runways is a dedicated 760-meter airstrip that provides unmanned aerial vehicles operated by nearby NASA Langley Research Center and others with immediate access to controlled airspace over the Atlantic.

Bruce Underwood, Wallops director of advanced projects, said Wallops is working with Manassas, Va.-based Aurora Flight Sciences to develop a UAV science center at Wallops for oceanographic and atmospheric research.

Wallops also researches ways to bring down range operations costs and improve range capabilities and responsiveness.

Wallops also serves as a test bed for new range technologies, Underwood said, and develops experimental payloads such as the autonomous flight safety system and low-cost satellite transmitter set to fly on Falcon 1’s next launch.

Underwood said the experimental payload is meant to help point the way toward rockets that need less help from radar operators on the ground and in the air to make sure they stay on course.

Looking ahead, Underwood said Wallops also has a number of potential roles to play in NASA’s exploration initiative, including serving as the launch site for a high altitude Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle abort system test in 2012 and deploying mobile range assets to provide re-entry tracking for Orion flight missions.

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Mission: Operates launch range and manages NASA’s suborbital science program of sounding rockets, scientific balloons and instrumented aircraft.

Parent Organization: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Top Official: John Campbell, director

Year Established: 1945

Location: Wallops Island, Va.

Current Budget: $180 million

Personnel: 300 NASA civil servants and 900 contractors