Virginia Spaceport Poised To Turn Pad Over to Orbital This Month

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WASHINGTON — The outgoing head of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority said the group is on track to hand off a launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., to Orbital Sciences Corp. this month.

Handing the pad over to Orbital would finally enable the Dulles, Va.-based rocket and satellite builder to begin flight demonstrations of its Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo module, the vehicles Orbital will use to fulfill a $1.9 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the international space station.

“The last big test, and we hope to do that this week as soon as we get authorization to proceed from the range, is a flow test for the liquid oxygen,” Billie Reed, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority’s executive director, said July 10. “That’s the last thing on our list [before pad turnover] besides doing the final tweaks and the punch-list items for the things you find during testing.”

In the flow test, tanks and fuel lines at MARS’s Pad 0-A will be flooded with liquid oxygen, the oxidizer that will be used by Antares, to ensure that they can contain and transfer the supercooled liquid. Reed said some liquid-oxygen tests had already started. “Our storage tank is pretty much almost full” of the cryogenic fluid, he said.

Besides finishing these fluid tests, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority also needs a safety certification from NASA, which owns the Wallops Flight Facility where MARS and its three launch pads are located.

Reed, who is preparing to step down after 17 years on the job, said the certification “should be wrapping up as well, if not this week then certainly early in the next.” That schedule tracks with NASA’s plans, which call for pad turnover “later this month,” agency spokesman Keith Koehler said July 11.

Orbital is more than a year and a half behind schedule in flying its first cargo resupply mission for NASA and has blamed the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority for pad construction and certification delays at MARS.

Antares’ first cargo run to the space station, a demonstration flight Orbital has to complete before it can begin flying the eight resupply missions NASA awarded in 2008, is scheduled for December. That demo, similar to the mission Space Exploration Technologies Corp. completed in May, will be preceded by Antares’ maiden flight slated for September and a hold-down test of the Antares first stage planned for August, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said.

An updated flight schedule will be released July 19 when Orbital reports its second-quarter earnings, Beneski said July 9.

By the time Antares flies, Reed will no longer be running the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. State officials announced in June that he will be replaced come August by Dale Nash, the current chief executive of the Alaska Aerospace Corp., which oversees the Kodiak Launch Complex that Orbital has used twice for Minotaur 4 launches. Reed said Nash beat out a field of 40 candidates for the job.

Reed will remain involved with the authority, which he has led since its establishment in 1995, as a consultant.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Reed said. “I’m not ready to walk out the door.”

 

Restructured Authority

Replacing Reed with Nash is only one of the changes the authority will make this year.

Per legislation signed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in April, the authority’s board of directors will be trimmed down to nine members from the current 13. The legislation also removed a requirement that the aerospace industry have a vote on the board. Currently, Jeffrey Windland, an Orbital vice president and assistant treasurer, holds a seat.

Technically, Windland’s term, and the terms of other board members, ran out July 2. However, McDonnell has yet to appoint a new board. Until he does, the old board will remain in place, Reed said.

Reed said he expects a new board to be appointed “in the next month or so.”

“Announcements on the appointees will be forthcoming prior to the [authority’s] next board meeting,” which is now scheduled for late August, said Jeff Caldwell, a McDonnell spokesman.