The successful launch Dec. 16 of a Minotaur rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the
coast is notable in several respects.


Space historians will note that it was the first orbital mission from a Wallops pad attempted in more than a decade, and the first success since 1985. The Minotaur, based in part on excess Minuteman missile motors, is the largest vehicle ever launched from the facility, which is used primarily for research involving sounding rockets and balloons.


The main payload on the flight, TacSat-2, is the first to orbit of a series of experimental U.S. Defense Department satellites that could dramatically change the way the military utilizes space. The TacSat effort is designed to test the concept whereby inexpensive space capabilities are launched quickly in response to emerging tactical needs and whose operations are directed by commanders in the field.


Last but certainly not least, the launch was the inaugural mission from the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), a collaboration of federal and state governments and the private sector more than 10 years in the making. The spaceport was conceived in order to leverage underutilized
government infrastructure to tap into what at the time appeared to be a solid market for launching commercial telecommunications satellites to low orbits – in the process generating revenues and jobs in an economically depressed region. Some $8 million in federal and state investment has been sunk into the project.


By the time the initial elements of the launch pad were installed in 1998, however, the prospects for what was then known as the
weren’t looking very bright, largely because the spaceport’s primary target market was collapsing. In spite of the uncertainty, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, the state organization spearheading the project, along with industrial partner CSC-DynSpace, pressed ahead.


In 2004,
, whose border with
is just up the road from Wallops, was brought on board, providing an additional source of funding, marketing resources and legislative clout behind what then became known as MARS. In the meantime, a new and potentially steady market emerged, primarily in the form of TacSat and related Pentagon programs that fall into the broad category of responsive space. In late 2004, MARS won a U.S. Air Force contract, potentially valued at $49 million, to support a variety of unspecified launches. The Air Force has yet to exercise any options under the five-year task-order contract, but the interest clearly is there.


MARS, whose geography makes it ideally suited for launching payloads into medium-inclination orbits, now has one successful mission under its belt and a 2007 manifest that includes three missions: separate Minotaur launches of the Pentagon’s Near Field Infrared Experiment and TacSat-3 satellites; and suborbital launch of a vehicle built by Alliant Techsystems.


There are no firm missions planned for 2008, but the Air Force task order contract remains in effect for another few years. Meanwhile, MARS is the likely site of demonstrations under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which is intended to foster a commercial logistics service for the international space station.


It remains to be seen whether the Pentagon’s interest in responsive space will prove enduring, or whether any space station business will materialize. And it is only fair to note that MARS has not become the moneymaking commercial venture once envisioned – CSC-DynSpace’s role, for example, has evolved to one of support contractor rather than equity partner.


But the spaceport appears for the time being to have found a niche for itself. Without knowing what the future holds, it can be said with certainty that for MARS, things are looking up.