For the Alaska Aerospace Corp., 2011 is shaping up to be a make-or-break year. The state-owned company is searching for a new anchor-tenant customer for its Kodiak Island spaceport and competing for a huge chunk of U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) business.
Though it has its hand in several other endeavors, developing and managing the Kodiak Launch Complex (KLC) has been the Anchorage-based firm’s top priority since its founding in 1991. Paid for with a combination of state and federal funds, the facility has been used primarily by the MDA to launch target missiles, but the agency’s contract expired in August, and it now launches targets from a site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.
The Air Force currently launches a few small rockets per year from KLC, but that does not provide enough revenue to keep Alaska Aerospace running. The state of Alaska chipped in $4 million to cover the firm’s operations last year and has budgeted a similar amount this year, said Dale Nash, chief executive of Alaska Aerospace.
The firm needs about $6 million more this year to avoid laying off a significant number of its 50 employees, he said. Nash is working with state lawmakers and the Alaskan congressional delegation to find the needed funding.
KLC’s best hope for the long term, Nash said, is to land a medium-lift launch vehicle operator as an anchor tenant. Two potential candidates are Orbital Sciences Corp., which is developing the Taurus 2 rocket, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () with its Falcon 9. Both of those rockets are liquid-fueled and would require construction of a new launch pad at the site, which today can support only solid-fueled rockets.
Alaska Aerospace also hopes to expand its footprint as part of the Lockheed Martin-Raytheon team competing for a multibillion-dollar contract to continue development and sustainment of the MDA’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the primary U.S. territorial missile shield. The winner is expected to be announced this summer, and a victory would likely double the size of Alaska Aerospace, Nash said.
For now, Nash is focused on KLC’s next mission, a scheduled May launch of a Minotaur 4 rocket carrying the experimental TacSat-4 communications satellite into orbit for the Defense Department. He spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
How does KLC fit into the nation’s overall launch infrastructure?
On the East Coast, you have Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and a very viable backup with Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, especially when Taurus 2 starts flying out of there. I believe we are a very good backup to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for small launch vehicles right now. We are also looking at how we might attract medium-lift capabilities.
There are some real advantages for flying to some orbits out of KLC. Our location is such that we can launch down range into azimuths from 110 degrees to 220 degrees. And we can launch satellites directly into high-inclination orbits without having to fly a dog-leg trajectory to avoid flying over land. This can allow for payload mass increases of up to 19 percent compared to other launch sites. If that drives a launch decision from a Minotaur- or Athena-class rocket to, say, an Atlas 5 rocket, then that would be a very significant advantage to flying out of KLC.
We are also very new and very modern, essentially 40 years newer than other ranges the government uses. We do all-indoor processing that’s temperature and humidity controlled. Once the rocket is erect on the launch pad, it is protected by the tower structure until just a couple of hours before a launch attempt, and we can close up that structure very quickly if the attempt is scrubbed. Our range system, Honeywell’s BMRST-2, uses GPS metric tracking and can input up to 15 other types of telemetry signals. KLC also requires only 18 people to operate, making it very cost effective.
Where are you in preparations for the TacSat-4 launch?
Right now we are processing toward a May 5 launch. We’re due to bring the motors out of the bunker this month and start the processing. The launch date for TacSat-4 could be impacted by the ORS-1 satellite, which is scheduled to launch in April from Wallops Flight Facility and relies on the same launch crew that will launch TacSat-4. With no other launches on our manifest right now, we can easily slip to the other side of ORS-1. But that decision will not be made by us.
Where are you in your efforts to attract new launch customers?
We are actively competing for three specific launches right now, but I can’t say which. We are talking quite a bit with Orbital Sciences, as they’ve had several launches out of here, including the STP-S26 mission that launched in November and the upcoming TacSat-4 mission. We would like to be a strategic partner with them for the Taurus 2 rocket. We also continue to talk with SpaceX.
What would need to be done to fly Taurus 2 or Falcon 9 from KLC?
We’re looking at building a third launch pad that would be about a kilometer from our two existing pads. We have done a lot of engineering work with our launch infrastructure architects, BRPH of Melbourne, Fla. We’ve watched very closely the Taurus 2 construction at Wallops Flight Facility, and we think it would cost about $85 million to prepare KLC to launch medium-lift liquid rockets. Construction here may be less extensive than at Wallops because Kodiak Island is a rock and we wouldn’t have to drive as many pylons here. We hope to have it figured out in the year ahead.
What work would you do under the Ground-based Midcourse Defense contract, and would it be a step away from your core competencies?
I think it’s right in our wheelhouse. Silos underground and launch pads above ground have a lot of similarity, and we have launched eight targets for MDA. We know the people, we know the system itself, and we have definitely proven we can operate a high-tech rocket launch facility in the remote and sometimes harsh Alaskan environment. We’ve proven we can recruit and maintain a very high-tech and talented work force in Alaska. We feel like it is very close with what we do already.
If our team wins the Ground-based Midcourse Defense contract, Alaska Aerospace would provide on-site maintenance at Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base. We would operate heavy machinery for handling materials and maintain the missile field infrastructure. This contract could double the size of our company.
What infrastructure projects have you been working on recently?
In 2009 the state gave us $7 million to invest in the construction of two new rocket-motor storage bunkers. Those are finished now, and each can hold an entire set of Minotaur or Athena rocket motors or a completely assembled launch vehicle. The idea was to move toward a rapid launch capability. We now have capacity for three rockets here, with two in the bunkers and one in processing. On our MDA targets, we were able to launch within 30 days from receiving the motors. Our goal is to set ourselves up to be able to launch within 24 hours, and more immediately, within days.
What else is Alaska Aerospace working on?
We were chartered to do more than just operate KLC. Space launch will always be our core competency, but we are growing beyond that and beginning to look at the many ways we can grow the aerospace industry in Alaska, either through our own corporation or by facilitating other aerospace corporations to look at moving operations up here.
We have been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the past two years on engineering studies related to using unmanned aircraft systems for environmental monitoring. We have mainly focused on Global Hawk and Predator operations in the arctic. As the military retires these aircraft, they can be used to monitor everything from climate change to forest fires to coastal erosion.