UPDATED, July 9: Corrected the dates for the Antares hold down test, maiden flight, and first Antares/Cygnus flight. Orbital Sciences Corp. says all of these milestones are scheduled to be completed before the end of 2012.
WASHINGTON — Alaska Aerospace Corp.’s Dale Nash will replace Billie Reed as executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA) effective July 31. The shakeup ends both Reed’s 17-year tenure as Virginia’s top commercial space official and six months of uncertainty about his role in Virginia’s developing commercial space launch industry.
Reed, who has run the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority since the group was created in July 1995, could not be reached for comment the week of July 2. Rumors of his departure from VCSFA first emerged in January, when the Daily Press, a Hampton Roads, Va., newspaper, reported that Reed would retire. Reed, at the time, called the report “exaggerated.”
Under Reed’s tenure, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) — a commercial launch facility on Wallops Island, Va., — has struggled to complete construction and certification of a launch pad leased to Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. for cargo-delivery missions to the international space station.
The VCSFA Board of Directors announced Nash’s appointment June 27. Nash will be only the second executive director in the authority’s 17-year history. He will be responsible for spaceport design and development and bringing new business to the state’s commercial spaceport. Nash is chief executive of Alaska Aerospace Corp., which he joined in 2007. He was responsible for operations of the Kodiak Launch Complex in Kodiak Island, Alaska. He has also been director of launch operations for space shuttle operator United Space Alliance of Houston, and vice president and general manager for Solid Rocket Booster Operations at ATK Launch Systems of Magna, Utah, which provided the shuttle’s side-mounted solid-rocket motors.
In a July 5 email, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said Nash “brings a wealth of experience to his new role at MARS which we believe will serve the Virginia spaceport well in the future.”
Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the international space station, and it plans to launch these flights from Pad 0-A at MARS, a three-pad commercial launch facility located on the southern tip of Wallops Island alongside the NASA-operated Wallops Flight Facility. VCSFA is responsible for expanding and operating MARS.
Orbital is more than a year and a half behind schedule in flying its first space station cargo mission for NASA, which will be launched by the company’s first liquid-fueled rocket, Antares. Orbital says that the rocket would have launched by now if not for pad construction and certification delays it blames on MARS. The company has put $45 million of its own money into the MARS pad and related infrastructure and held a voting position on VCSFA’s board of directors.
However, legislation signed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in April restructured the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority to relegate space industry representatives to a nonvoting advisory role. A 2011 report on the authority by auditors KPMG said Orbital’s dual role as customer and board director, along with the company’s right of first refusal for use of MARS launch facilities, presented a possible conflict of interest that might make the Virginia spaceport unattractive to other prospective customers.
As part of legislation signed in April, VCSFA was also given a bigger budget — $9.5 million a year, up from $7.5 million in 2011. Some of that money will go toward a strategic study of Virginia’s commercial spaceflight needs and opportunities, which the authority was directed to submit to the Virginia government by Dec. 1. The study has to be repeated every four years, per the new law, the Commercial Space Flight Authority Promotion and Reform Bill.
Meanwhile, the first Antares hold-down test at Pad 0-A is now scheduled for August. As part of its fight demonstration agreement with NASA, Orbital has to complete that test before it can launch Antares on its maiden flight, now scheduled for September. In the September flight, Antares will fly without its Cygnus cargo module. It would not be until December, when Antares flies for the second time, that Orbital’s European-built Cygnus freighter would fly to orbit and berth with the space station. The first Antares/Cygnus flight was supposed to happen in December 2010.
MARS, because of its close proximity to NASA launch sites, needs a NASA safety certification before Orbital can carry out any of these test flights.
The last big certification milestone at MARS was in May, when officials there completed so-called cryoshock tests. For these test, tanks and fuel lines were flooded with liquid nitrogen — a cheaply procured stand-in for the liquid oxygen that will be used for actual launches — to see if they could handle the temperature extremes of supercooled rocket propellent. The cryoshock test will have to be repeated with liquid oxygen before the planned hold-down test of Antares’ kerosene-fueled first stage.
Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said the liquid oxygen shock tests are slated for July, and that a hold-down test could be completed as soon as a month later.