Virginia Urged To Increase Its Spaceport Investment

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A study commissioned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority calls for the state to make the capital investment necessary to turn the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island into a multi-use facility and attract new customers.

Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, said he intends to ask the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to enact legislation to implement the study’s recommendations.

“Virginia’s space industry currently contributes $7.6 billion in annual direct economic output and supports over 28,000 jobs,” McDonnell said in a Nov. 22 statement accompanying the release of the study. “Given the job creation and economic development potential surrounding MARS, I will be submitting a promotion bill this session of the General Assembly to implement the report’s recommendations.”

The spaceport, co-located with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and used occasionally by the U.S. Air Force to launch small payloads, will serve as the primary launch facility for Orbital Sciences Corp.’s medium-lift Taurus 2 rocket, slated to debut early next year. After two demonstration flights, the rocket is expected to begin launching on routine missions delivering cargo to the international space station.

The study, conducted by KPMG, found that while Virginia ranks “among the leaders in providing state incentives to attract customers,” MARS is rarely used for important U.S. national security missions — June’s launch of the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space-1 surveillance satellite was a notable exception — and that the spaceport’s primary focus will likely remain on serving commercial and suborbital customers.

To remedy this situation, the study says, MARS management should conduct a gap analysis to determine the investment required to make the infrastructure modifications needed to attract other customers to the spaceport. MARS also should structure its partnership with Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences to allow other customers to use MARS assets “as well as any assets that Virginia has paid for or financed directly or indirectly so that all parties are treated fairly.”

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, as part of its 2008 agreement with Orbital, has helped finance spaceport improvements through grants and by underwriting bonds.

Orbital, for its part, has committed to making at least $45 million in capital investments in Taurus 2-related facilities at Wallops and the company’s main Dulles campus by the end of 2011.

Orbital’s chief competitor for space station resupply business, Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), issued a press release Nov. 18 saying it is searching for an additional launch site in order to meet increasing demand from commercial customers.

“Four U.S. states — Virginia, California, Alaska, and Florida — have active launch sites,” SpaceX said in the release. “Given the complexity of developing a rocket launch site, SpaceX will be pursuing several options concurrently in order to fully understand the pros and cons of each location.”

SpaceX already has a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is developing a new launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“Our growing launch manifest has led us to look for additional sites,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a statement. “We’re considering several states and territories. I envision this site functioning like a commercial Cape Canaveral.”