WASHINGTON — It will take about 18 months of aggressive work to prepare the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport for its new client, the Taurus 2 launch vehicle, said Billie Reed, director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority that operates the spaceport.
Taurus 2 manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp. ended a heated competition between Florida and Virginia to be the base of Taurus operations with its June 9 selection of the spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
“I can’t really celebrate tonight because I know tomorrow I’m going to have to get right to work,” Reed said in a telephone interview shortly after the announcement.
Orbital, which is based in Dulles, Va., is developing the Taurus 2 rocket and an automated cargo carrier with approximately $170 million in financial assistance from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration program. The company aims to conduct its first international space station-bound demonstration flight by the end of 2010. Orbital Sciences will spend $45 million on development and infrastructure for Taurus 2, company spokesman Barry Beneski said. The program will create 125 jobs split between the Dulles and Wallops Island locations.
Taurus 2 is larger than the Orbital-built Minotaur rockets launched from Wallops. Those launches will continue, and a second launch pad that has not been used for a decade will be renovated for Taurus 2.
Virginia lawmakers approved a $16 million bond package this year to help pay for launch pad renovation and other improvements including a new vehicle integration facility and a fixed liquid fueling system, Reed said. The facility primarily has been the launch site of solid motor rockets and some small liquid fuel rockets using a mobile fueling system, he said. In the heat of the competition between Virginia and Florida, lawmakers in Florida approved $14.5 million for a launch pad reconfiguration at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The dormant Air Force launch pad will be adapted to accommodate commercial launchers.
While Orbital’s decision dealt a blow to Florida, Steve Kohler, president of the state’s space arm, Space Florida, said there are several other customers either committed or in negotiations to use Florida launch facilities.
He also hopes that Orbital still will consider launching from Florida in the future.
“Orbital has indicated that there is opportunity in the future that they may still consider a Florida base option,” he said. “I think at the end of the day we’ll see an Orbital presence in Florida.”
Heavy lobbying from members of Congress occurred on behalf of both states, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, hailed Orbital’s decision as great news for Maryland. “This is the biggest thing to hit the Eastern Shore since Captain John Smith’s anchor,” Mikulski said in a statement adding that she has helped steer more than $20 million to Wallops since 2002 to fund infrastructure upgrades.
“If Orbital’s rocket is successful, Wallops could become a hub for cargo services to the international space station, bringing new jobs and economic development opportunities to the lower shore,” she said.
Orbital Sciences has launched 11 rockets from Wallops, giving the company a familiarity that Reed said might have helped in the company’s decision. Kohler also said having a headquarters and launch site in one state, and the lack of other major rocket manufacturers competing for time and space at Wallops also were likely factors.
But company officials did not pinpoint a specific reason for their pick.
“We came to the conclusion in the end that the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport offered the best location for us,” Beneski said. “There wasn’t one thing that tipped the scales for us; it was a whole host of reasons. Both states did a great job – they pulled in all aspects of state government and local economic development.”
Staff writer Brian Berger contributed to this article.