by Douglas Messier
Ten months after the first pilings were driven in, Rocket Lab declared its new launch complex on Wallops Island, Va., open and ready to serve the U.S. military’s need for rapid response launches with the company’s Electron booster.
“We’re proud to call Wallops Island in Virginia our home. We’re very proud to deliver a new launch capability to the United States. We’re very proud to support U.S. missions with a U.S. launch vehicle on U.S. soil,” CEO Peter Beck said during a press conference.
“Launch Complex 2 delivers a new capability to the nation, and represents a new era of frequent and reliable launch, and responsive launch, to the United States,” he added. “LC-2 is here now ready to support responsive government launches and also for the nation’s security community.”
The new complex doubles the number of Electron launch sites. Rocket Lab has flown the booster 10 times from Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Beck made the announcement flanked by representatives of: NASA, which runs the Wallops Flight Facility; Virginia Space, the state agency that operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS): and the U.S. Air Force, which is funding Rocket Lab’s first American launch.
The new launch complex is located at MARS adjacent to the pad that Northrop Grumman uses to launch its Antares booster. Wallops Island also supports flights of Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur boosters.
Rocket Lab’s LC-2 facility will largely support U.S. government missions with some commercial launches, Beck said. LC-1 in New Zealand will handle the bulk of commercial flights.
Shaun D’Mello, Rocket Lab’s vice president for launch, said a new integration and control center under construction would allow the company to have four Electron boosters on standby for rapid response launches.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Meagan Thrush said Electon’s first launch from Wallops will be a dedicated mission called STP-27RM for the service’s Space Test Program (STP) . The launch is scheduled for spring 2020.
“Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will launch a single R&D microsat called Monolith,” she said. “Monolith is an Air Force Research Laboratory program designed to explore the application of small satellites for DOD programs. Specifically, Monolith will determine the ability of small bus sizes to support large aperture space weather payloads.”
It will be Rocket Lab’s second launch for the U.S. Air Force. On May 5, an Electron booster launched the STP-27RD mission from New Zealand, placing three research and development (R&D) satellites into orbit with “extraordinary precision,” Thrush said.
The U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI) has provided funding for both launches, Thrush said. The program was established in 2017 to procure launches on small boosters.
“The Air Force is building on the success of the RALI mission to provide agile and responsive contracting vehicles to quickly award launch services for small satellite missions,” she added.
D’Mello said the Wallops launch complex is very similar to the one in New Zealand. Some modest upgrades were incorporated to make it easier to maintain, operate and turn around between launches.
“Fundamentally, I must say, not a whole lot changed. So we got most things right in LC-1,” D’Mello said.
Engineers are beginning systems checks on the new launch pad, he added.
Rocket Lab is looking to add about 80 employees to the U.S. team as it ramps up operations on Wallops Island, D’Mello said.