State Fight: Virginia is for rockets

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This could be a pivotal year for the Virginia Space.

Rocket Lab, the California company that has been sending payloads to orbit since 2018 on its Electron launch vehicle, may finally get the green light to begin flying rockets from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island.

Since Rocket Lab selected the site in 2018, the California company has been working with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which oversees the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, to get it up and running.

Planned launches in 2020 and 2021 were postponed due to delays in NASA’s effort to develop and certify an autonomous flight safety system for Electron launches. NASA said last month, though, that the certification should be completed in February.

If that happens, it will mark an important milestone for Virginia Space. To date, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility has been known for launching Northrop Grumman Antares rockets and Cygnus capsules to transport cargo to the International Space Station, and for launching sounding rockets.

Rocket Lab operates a private launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. When the company, based in Huntington Beach, California, was looking for a second launch site, it chose Wallops in part because Rocket Lab intends to conduct frequent launches of Electron and its new medium-class Neutron rocket and Wallops is not as busy as California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base or Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

To help seal the deal, Virginia promised Rocket Lab a $5 million grant.

In addition to the new Rocket Lab launch pad, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport opened a Payload Processing Facility in 2020 that can accommodate classified national security missions.

Virginia also is attracting startups. Herndon-based HawkEye 360 operates a constellation of radio-frequency-monitoring satellites. SpaceLink of McLean is working to establish a space-data relay constellation. LeoCloud of Ashburn is focused on satellite-based cloud computing. And TrustPoint, a firm developing a new global navigation satellite system, is based both in Northern Virginia and Silicon Valley.

U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are investing in startups that offer space-related products and services that complement government capabilities. Being in Virginia provides geographic access to customers in the Department of Defense and intelligence community, said Chris DeMay, TrustPoint founder and chief operating officer.

Since Virginia also is home to government agencies, federally funded research centers and defense contractors, “your odds are good in recruiting high quality NewSpace employees in Northern Virginia,” DeMay added.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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