Senator targets Alaska launch site in wasteful spending report
WASHINGTON — The company that operates an Alaska launch site is critical of the spaceport’s inclusion in a list of pork-barrel spending released last week by a senator.
The 2017 edition of the “Wastebook” by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a compendium of projects costing anywhere from tens of thousands to billions of dollars that the senator deemed a waste of taxpayer money, included the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska (PSCA), previously known as the Kodiak Launch Complex, on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.
The report, released Jan. 10, is specifically critical of a contract worth up to $80.4 million awarded to Alaska Aerospace Corporation by the Missile Defense Agency in 2016. The six-year contract covers flight tests and other services planned for the spaceport.
“DOD is sinking more than $80 million into a ‘spaceport’ in Alaska that is not even equipped for the rockets that the Pentagon is planning to launch there,” the report claims. “Derided as ‘space pork,’ Congress forced DOD to build the launch site as part of an illegal kick-back scheme over the objections of the military.”
“This was a surprise to us,” said Craig Campbell, chief executive of Alaska Aerospace Corporation, in a Jan. 12 interview. He said Flake’s office had not contacted the company during its work putting together the report, and that he wasn’t aware the spaceport was included in the report until after it was released.
Campbell took issue with the report’s focus on the spaceport’s development in the 1990s, including linking it to a scheme where two Army Space and Missile Defense Command employees collected $1.6 million in payments for directing $350 million in funds for various projects, including construction of the Kodiak launch site.
“I think that’s irrelevant today,” he said of that emphasis in the report. “Regardless of what happened 20 years ago, we’re all focused now on what’s right for the taxpayer today.”
He also noted that the MDA contract is an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity award, with $80.4 million the maximum value only if all task orders on the contract are exercised. “To date we’ve only had four task orders, and it’s substantially less than $80 million,” he said.
The spaceport, developed to support small launch vehicles as well as missile tests, has encountered setbacks in recent years. An August 2014 missile test from the spaceport ended in failure seconds after liftoff, with an explosion damaging launch facilities there. The launch complex also suffered from financial problems linked to broader budget issues with the state government, which owns the site.
Campbell said that there is renewed interest in PSCA beyond the MDA contract. The spaceport is providing a mobile range and telemetry system to support the initial launches of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket in New Zealand.
Alaska Aerospace Corporation is also in discussions with Vector Space Systems about hosting launches of that company’s small launch vehicles from the spaceport. Campbell added he is in discussions with another vehicle developer he declined to identify. “We’re getting very active in the commercial side with the new entrants,” he said.
In addition to the Alaska spaceport, two small NASA projects were included in the Wastebook report. One was a series of studies, with a total cost of $88,000, that examined the effects of climate change on wine production. The other was a $1.1 million grant from NASA’s astrobiology program to the Center of Theological Inquiry to study how the world’s religions would respond to the discovery of life beyond Earth.