The Case for Wallops Island as a Commercial Spaceport

Launch complexes on Wallops Island, Virginia

Guest blogger Jack Kennedy, who edits the Spaceports blog, makes the case for Virginia’s Wallops Island to play a major role in NASA’s new commercial space policy in this op-ed piece, which ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 21. Kennedy is a former State Assemblyman who serves on the executive committee of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which governs the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission.


By Jack Kennedy

Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell has been consistent in his vision to make Virginia’s commercial spaceport the best in the nation, most notably with his recent budget amendment to increase the operations budget for the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority; he is to be commended.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is now being readied for commercial space launches to haul supplies and cargo to the International Space Station beginning next year, following the aging space shuttle’s retirement. The first launch of the yet-to-be-tested Taurus-2 booster with the Cygnus spacecraft will mark not only the beginning of a new era in Virginia but the dawn of the commercial space age in America.

The $1.9 billion NASA contract awarded to Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp. to conduct several orbital spacecraft launches over the next five years is but a prelude to the future of space flight from Wallops Island, in Accomack County. The unique opportunity is bringing hundreds of new jobs to the commonwealth and a new breed of “space tourist” to the Delmarva Peninsula — and with them flow millions of dollars.

Orbital Sciences Corp. is a commercial space launch integrator with suppliers from the Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Holland, Germany, Japan, and Canada. Rocket engineers from the Ukraine will take up residence near Wallops Island soon to help the venture embark upon an international commercial space launch effort to the international space station from 2011 to 2015, perhaps to 2020 under President Obama’s space policy plan, yet to be adopted by Congress.

Recently, Mike Gold, a representative from Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, visited Wallops Island and suggested that the Virginia spaceport is a prime candidate for launch of Atlas V boosters to private space stations enabling microgravity international commercial research in orbit. The inflatable space stations would be owned by Robert Bigelow, a real estate tycoon, and NewSpace entrepreneur. Launches of the Atlas V may commence as soon as 2014; these multimillion-dollar launches too could originate from Wallops Island.

Without the unwavering state budget support of the spaceport in these austere times, the multibillion-dollar space launch business of Orbital Sciences Corp., and the would-be space business of Bigelow Aerospace would be most certainly lost to the now-hungry commercial spaceports of Florida. Make no mistake, Florida Space will keep trying; Virginia should expect no less in the new globalized space market business competition.

Virginia has been carefully planning the effort to be the new gateway to low-earth orbit and the moon over the past few years by enacting the first-in-the-nation Commercial Space Flight Liability and Immunity Act in 2007, offered by Del. Terry Kilgore; the ZeroGravity, ZeroTax Act in 2008 offered by Sen. William C. Wampler, Jr.; multimillion-dollar spaceport construction bonds in 2008 and 2009; and, the now $1.3 million annual spaceports operations budget amendment offered by McDonnell. Each step has brought Virginia a little closer to an effective space policy capable of luring space launch firms from California, Nevada, and Texas to peek at what the NewSpace community now calls “space island” and the 21st century opportunities there.

Without the near unanimous support of state legislators over the years, and the persistence of five governors — George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and now Bob McDonnell — Virginia’s fledgling commercial spaceport would not be on the verge of inaugurating the commercial space era in Virginia and the nation.

The future at the spaceport will not be easy. There is always risk associated with such bold human endeavors. But it is good to know that there is bipartisan support to do what is right — right for Virginia’s high-technology economy, right for national security, right for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and right for the people of the Delmarva Peninsula. Virginia must also remain firm in its commitment to space commerce investment and continue to advance forward-thinking space policy.

The only open counsel to offer McDonnell is to seek to organize the Virginia congressional delegation on a trek to the new “space island.” Virginia’s 11 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the two U.S. senators need to be positioned to influence federal policy when NASA’s fiscal year 2011 budget and policy authorizations advance through the various committees of Congress. Virginia taxpayers now have a multimillion-dollar vested interest in the commercial space launch business, and it is important to see it grow.

Federal space politics is not so much whether to go but how we get there — to orbit, the moon, Mars, and the asteroids with robotic space probes and human-rated capsules. The policies adopted in the next year may well determine the next 50 years of space commerce, space exploration, and space development. There is no more fitting place to wage the space policy debate than from Virginia — where the first American astronauts of yesteryear trained for the first human spaceflights, and where New World Virginia can now be in direct contact with the New Frontier of commercial spaceflight.

Jack Kennedy He is a former member of the Virginia General Assembly representing Southwest Virginia. Contact him at [email protected]