NASA’s Budget: A Mixed Bag for Virginia

Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia

NASA’s proposed budget contains some very good news for NASA facilities and contractors in Virginia as well as a bit of bad news.

The likely winners: Orbitial Sciences Corporation, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The losers:  contractors working on the Constellation program at NASA Langley.

The proposed budget includes a strong emphasis on commercial space, including an extra $300 million to speed up the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

Orbital Sciences of Herdon, Virginia, is developing its Taurus II booster and Cygnus spacecraft under the COTS program to provide cargo to the International Space Station. (SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif. is developing a competing system under COTS.) Orbital plans to launch the Taurus II rockets from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.

The Obama Administration wants to send astronauts to ISS aboard commercial rockets. Orbital is expected to be one of the companies bidding for that contract, with the hope of human-rating the Taurus and developing Cygnus into a capsule.

Officials at NASA Wallops say they are pleased with the agency’s new focus on commercial space and smaller robotic probes. The Virginia Pilot reports:

“I think we see some opportunities for Wallops whether it be NASA or commercial activities,” said Keith Koehler, spokesman at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

NASA’s new direction would look to utilize unmanned and robotic missions as a safer and cheaper precursor and possibly a replacement to manned missions. NASA Wallops, with its annual budget of typically around $190 million, is known mostly as a test range that could serve that new direction well, Koehler said.

“Right now we don’t see anything that becomes a detriment to us,” Koehler said of the proposed $19 billion NASA budget for 2011.

The news at NASA Langley is more mixed, the Pilot reports:

According to Keith Henry, NASA Langley spokesman, about 300 service employees and 80 contractors have been working at NASA Langley on the Constellation program. Of NASA Langley’s $750 million annual budget, about $65 million was funding for Constellation, Henry said….

Killing Constellation will not result in any layoffs of NASA Langley civil servant employees, Henry said. There may be some job loss among the contractors who have worked on the program.

Though manned trips to the moon and Mars are out of reach, the new budget would allocate more than $8 billion to NASA for its science, aeronautics and explorations sectors. Those remain three of NASA Langley’s focus areas, Henry said.

“We’re pretty well positioned to share in the direction,” Henry said.