Billie Reed is finally beginning to see payoff for his 16-year effort to turn a small launch facility on the sleepy eastern shore of Virginia into a vibrant commercial spaceport capable of launching the newest medium-class launch vehicles to the international space station.
An assistant engineering professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk
and a former Navy submariner, Reed has been executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority since its formation by the Virginia General Assembly 13 years ago.
Reed has plodded through the slow buildup of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. It has served as the base of operations for Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences’ small Minotaur rocket carrying government payloads, but currently lacks the ability to launch larger-class vehicles or those requiring liquid fuel.
All that is about to change. On June 9 the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport won a heated competition with Space Florida
to launch Orbital’s medium-class Taurus 2, a rocket the company has under development with funding from
NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System. Once it is finished, the Taurus 2 will be ready to deliver supplies to
the station, a critical need for NASA once the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
Reed now must direct an 18-month, $16 million-plus
project to make an old launch pad capable of launching the Taurus 2 and other commercial launch vehicles, and build a fixed liquid fueling system and a vehicle integration facility. Reed hopes Orbital is the first of many commercial customers to choose the Virginia spaceport. He spoke June 13 to Space News staff writer Becky Iannotta.
Orbital is investing $45 million in Taurus 2-related infrastructure and development and adding a total of 125 jobs between its Dulles and Wallops locations. Is the surrounding community ready for the influx of business and activity?
The region is excited about it. The residents love their rural environment
and so do I. The jobs impact, although very significant from an economic development point of view for us in that region, is not at the level that it’s going to disrupt the current way of life and I think residents recognize that.
Many of them work there or they have a relative who does. We’re not talking about activity or employment levels any higher than the historical levels. In the 1970s and 1980s there were 2,000 employees out there and they were launching quite frequently in that era. In the mid-1990s the employment level got down to about 800, and now we’re back up to about 1,500 or 1,600 with all parties that are there – NASA, contractors, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Navy and Coast Guard. So we definitely have room to grow.
Will the $16 million bond issue approved by Virginia lawmakers this year cover the cost of preparing for Taurus 2?
We are hopeful. The initial estimate we worked on with Orbital was $16 million and that was adequate. As we mature and their program continues to mature, we’re finding there may be growth in that. We are looking at additional bond offerings next year. That has been discussed and explored and it requires action by the General Assembly in Virginia. We are committed to do that if it’s necessary. So we expect to see some growth.
What is the schedule for preparing for Taurus 2?
Orbital has committed to flying a Taurus 2 demonstration mission for late 2010. Some of the infrastructure is going to be needed as soon as 18 months. Orbital intends to do some pre-flight testing, first stage motor test firings that probably will occur in early 2010, and that means a great deal of the facility needs to be ready certainly by January 2010.
Wallops has been praised for its ability to give individualized attention, but criticized because it is rural and not easy to get to. How do you respond?
I was working at Cape Canaveral when it was a lot of marsh grass and not much else, so I’ve seen it grow since the 1960s. That’s a different order of business magnitude or activity than we anticipate, but we do have quite an inventory of highly qualified technical people both in the trades and engineering. A lot of times the environment is very attractive to people wanting to escape the hubbub of the city. It’s an issue but it’s something we’re ready to address. People seek pleasant places to live with low crime and great places for their kids. In terms of resources, services, utilities and land for expansion, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Accomack County, NASA and an activity called the Marine Sciences Consortium have formed what we call a Wallops Research Park that is immediately adjacent to the fence of the main base of Wallops. It is several hundred acres of land and there are facilities there and under development right now for our clients.
What is happening at Wallops right now?
The Minotaur stable of vehicles is the primary workhorse. We’re obviously working with many of the other entrepreneurial companies on development of their vehicles hoping to be able to address their needs in the future. Right now there’s not too many out there.
Our facility was designed in part to accommodate the Lockheed Martin Athena-class of launch vehicles, which had a couple launches and sort of went away. All of those were based on the now- Castor-120 class of solid rocket booster motor and that was what most of us in that era had hoped would become a major vehicle.
How many launches a year
can you support at Wallops?
Federal environmental requirements allow us to launch the equivalent emissions of 12 Athena 3 launch vehicles. That’s rather large because that vehicle had not only the Castor-120 but it had six Castor-4 strap-ons that were ground-ignited. That established an emission profile and that was a lot of emissions as far as rocket motor exhaust. If the vehicles have lesser amounts we can launch more.
For instance the liquid fuel vehicles – the liquid oxygen kerosene, liquid oxygen hydrogen and peroxide oxydized – produce far fewer
problems than some of the solids. In terms of the Minotaur operation we could easily do six per year. We have one Minotaur-capable launch pad so that
bottleneck, plus the preparation period that is currently used. Many people are looking, in response to the operational responsive space initiative, at ways of condensing that so there is much less time on pad. So that’s when you can move into higher numbers even with one launch pad.
How many more launches will you be able to do once the second launch pad is online for Taurus 2?
We’re going to redevelop Pad A into a medium-class launch vehicle launch pad that would be suitable for a vehicle larger than
the Minotaur and for
liquid fuel vehicles as well as larger solids if they are in the fleet.
Orbital has said they want to launch around five Taurus 2 vehicles to transport
to the space station. That operation would not obviate concurrent operations for Minotaur. If the Taurus 2 flight rate manifests itself, that would be five or six a year and we are certainly fully capable of six or more off the other pad without interference. It becomes a rather challenging scheduling problem, but it is physically possible to do that. It doesn’t violate any of the safety criteria or the environmental criteria.
Is there room for another customer to come in?
Although right now the primary customer for Pad A is Orbital Sciences, that pad is going to be a universal-type pad that could easily accommodate
other vehicles. We are definitely still open to all comers on a schedule basis. We talk to people every day about what their needs and requirements are.
Is there a possibility of adding a third launch pad?
We’ve discussed that with NASA. The real estate is somewhat limited. Studies have been done on developing at least one more medium-class orbital capable pad on terra firma. We also are in the process of looking, at least notionally, at the possibility of building a pad over the water. It would be a piling-supported structure similar to an oil-drilling rig, less than a quarter mile away and connected to land by a bridge. That would give us the separation we need for safety reasons.
When you first launched the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, did you have any idea it would take 16 years to get your big customer?
Nobody would have thought it would take that long. It was in the early 1990s when everyone was thinking the sky was going to be darkened with these constellations of commercial satellites. That is why most of the spaceports in that era got into it and certainly why we became interested. Certainly we thought maybe within a five-year period.
What were some of obstacles along the way?
At the time the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration didn’t even license the launch site itself, so there were those challenges of trying to get through the regulatory process without even having a framework to follow.
Wallops Island is a barrier island that is surrounded by national park service land. It’s a fragile environment in a coastal plain. There is some historical significance in the area so there are numerous challenges to work through to obtain permits to do the basic work. All of those were a challenge in the sense that we really didn’t know what was next. We would address one thing, thinking that’s it, and then something else would surface.