Rocket Lab selects Wallops for U.S. launch site

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WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Small launch vehicle company Rocket Lab announced Oct. 17 that it will build its second launch pad, and first in the United States, at Wallops Island in Virginia.

The company, headquartered in the United States but with much of its operations in New Zealand, said it will build Launch Complex (LC) 2 at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility here. Construction of the pad is set to start almost immediately, with the company planning a first launch from the site in the third quarter of 2019.

Rocket Lab selected Wallops after what Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck called an “exhaustive nationwide search” for a launch site to complement its existing facility in New Zealand, known as LC-1. The company announced four finalists in July that included Wallops as well as Cape Canaveral in Florida, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska.

Wallops was the “clear winner” for several reasons, Beck said at a press conference here. “We’ve got a very aggressive time scale to build the pad, and Wallops had a lot of the team and infrastructure in place ready for us,” he said.

Wallops is also “relatively quiet” in terms of launch activity, he said, posing less of a challenge to meeting the goal of supporting as many as 12 launches a year of its Electron rocket. That factor helped rule out Cape Canaveral and its higher rate of launch activity. “The Cape is very, very busy,” he said. “That was one of the key critical factors for choosing Wallops.”

LC-2 will be built just south and east of Pad 0-A at Wallops, used by Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which performs about two launches a year on average carrying Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Both Rocket Lab and Wallops officials anticipate few conflicts between Antares and Electron missions, given that the Electron won’t spend much time on the pad before launch and Northrop is also working to reduce the amount of on-pad time for future Antares missions.

Beck
Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said he envisions LC-2 as a “boutique” launch site for customers seeking to launch to specific orbits, or prefer to launch from the U.S. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Rocket Lab plans to spend more than $20 million on LC-2, which will be based on New Zealand’s LC-1 with only minor changes. “There are some small modifications that we intend to make, but you won’t see something that looks vastly different,” Beck said.

“Philosophically, we won’t be changing much between the two pads,” said Shaun D’Mello, Rocket Lab’s vice president of launch. The company will incorporate some lessons learned, he said, from their existing site in terms of operations and maintenance. “Largely we’ll operate the same.”

Beck said that LC-2 will be used primarily for customers, like U.S. government agencies, who prefer to launch from within the United States. “LC-1 will remain our high-frequency pad,” he said. “For LC-2, think of it more as a boutique pad for customers who want to remain in the United States and if they have a certain requirement around inclination.” LC-2 can support launches to inclinations between 38 and 60 degrees.

The Virginia state government will also be supporting the construction of LC-2. Dale Nash, executive director of Virginia Space, the agency that runs the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport, said the exact amount was proprietary, but the figure includes a $5 million grant from the state government that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam formally approved Oct. 16.

“There are economic incentives to get the pad built out” as well as a launch vehicle integration facility, Nash said. He also cited “in-kind contributions” in the form of the local workforce, which has experience building launch facilities. “It’s not all money, but money is a key part of it.”

Some of the specific details on how the facility will built are still being worked out, he said. “I won’t say we have figured it all out, but we have a very good idea of where we’re headed,” he said. “We know we can go do it.”

The new launch site will initially support 30 jobs, Rocket Lab said, growing to as many as 100 once the site’s launch rate ramps up towards its peak of one a month. That is welcomed by local and state officials, who have worked for years increase launch activity, and the economic benefits that come with it, at Wallops through efforts like building Pad 0-A for Antares. “This is a real shot in the arm for the Eastern Shore,” said Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

“This new business highlights Wallops’ reputation as a leader in the space industry and will lead to its continued growth and success,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in a statement. He, like retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski, has backed the launch site, many of whose workers live in neighboring Maryland. “I will keep working to support this facility and ensure strong federal investment in its missions.”

The announcement of LC-2 comes less than a week after Rocket Lab formally opened a new production facility in Auckland, New Zealand. That facility, opened Oct. 12 at an event that included New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and actor William Shatner from Star Trek. The new factory, which consolidates several smaller facilities, will be able to produce one Electron rocket a week, the company said.

Rocket Lab is also gearing up to resume launches after an extended hiatus caused by issues with a motor controller in the rocket’s first stage engines. Beck said the next Electron launch remains on schedule for November, to be followed by another in December carrying a number of smallsats as part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program.