Virginia Hits Back at Florida Over Human Spaceflight

Pad OA at Wallops Island. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Virginians are pushing back against efforts by Florida to maintain its monopoly on human spaceflight missions. Jack Kennedy, a prominent backer of commercial space in Virginia, sent the following email to supporters on Saturday:

“Space Florida is getting really aggressive and negative to the possibility of human commercial space launch from Wallops Island, Virginia.

“I strongly urge you to communicate with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Congressman Frank Wolf and Senator Mark Warner, in particular. ASK that they call upon Boeing to openly pledge to launch the Atlas-V from Virginia under the NASA Commercial Crew program by 2015.

“Your e-Mail, letter, and/or phone call to these three Congressional offices may go a long way to make human space flight from Virginia a reality (especially in the wake of the Florida push back against Virginia’s spaceport).

“Please act this week.”

The battle erupted last month over a Site-Wide Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) being conducted on the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The review includes the potential impact of launching human missions from the Eastern Shore spaceport, which currently hosts satellite and sounding rocket flights.

The prospects of losing future commercial spaceflight providers such as Boeing to Virginia — as well as federal funds to build, operate and upgrade related facilities at Cape Canaveral — are very worrisome to Florida officials, who are reeling from mass layoffs resulting from the end of the space shuttle program.

“The most pressing issue for the Florida workforce is the sense of betrayal that their tax dollars might be used in establishing a competing orbital human spaceflight launch capability in another state when they have so well and ably done the job here in Florida,” wrote Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, in a letter sent to Wallops officials last month.

“The development and maintenance of the requisite ground systems and infrastructure needed to safely support is something with which Florida is acutely familiar. The resources necessary to put in place all new infrastructure at a separate location, particularly in an era of fiscal austerity, seems contrary to the best interest of the agency in particular and of the taxpayers in general,” wrote Space Florida President Frank DiBello in a separate letter.

Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler told Florida Today that there are no immediate plans for human launches from the Eastern Shore spaceport.

“It’s really taking a look at where the industry is going,” he said. “Whether or not we are part of those activities is anybody’s guess at this point, but we are trying to cover the whole gamut in our environmental study.”

Kennedy’s response was much harsher and indicated that much more is at stake.

“The unkind remarks have not gone without notice in Virginia,” he wrote on his Spaceports blog. “Members of the Congressional delegation are being alerted, including the Chairman of the House Appropiations Subcommittee on Space and the House Republican Majority Leader. Virginians will react with OpEds on the Florida tactic in nearly every daily newspaper across the Commonwealth. Virginians will make certain that every state legislator and every member of the Virginia Congressional delegation is aware of the negative effort by Space Florida to ground the Virginia spaceport.

“The Florida space community should realize that the Chinese and the Russians will soon have two human-rated orbital spaceports. Just like we would should have had more than one option for human space access beyond the shuttle, commercial space launch should provide the American nation more than one low earth orbit space vehicle and the capacity to launch human-rated spacecraft from more than one location. I find the anti-Virginia comments misguided, unfortunate and disappointingly, monopolistic!”

Kennedy’s email in which he urges Boeing to “openly pledge” to launch its commercial CST-100 spacecraft from Wallops is the clearest evidence yet that Virginia’s efforts to expand the spaceport might pay off. Virginia has been courting commercial launch providers to operate from the Walllops.

Boeing is developing the CST-100 spacecraft to send crews and cargo to the International Space Station and private orbital bases being developed by Bigelow Aerospace. The spacecraft would launch aboard an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

If the parties chose to launch from Virginia, the Atlas V would liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), a launch complex located at Wallops and operated by Virginia and Maryland. In recent years, MARS and Wallops have been upgraded using state, federal and private funds to accommodate Orbital Sciences Corporation’s new Taurus II rocket, which will send cargo to the International Space Station and satellites into orbit.

Bigelow would need in excess of 20 launches per year to support the two stations it wants to assemble in orbit by the end of the decade. This would be likely more than Cape Canaveral could support given its other launches, so the company is looking to launch on multiple launch vehicles from multiple locations to avoid scheduling conflicts, delays and being too reliant upon a single system and location.

Virginia could have some advantages over Florida. Commercial launch providers have complained about the difficulty of dealing with the U.S. Air Force, which launches rockets from Cape Canaveral and controls range operations. The Air Force is viewed as slow and bureaucratic. Military officials have acknowledged these issues and say they are working to make the process more efficient and customer friendly.

At stake in the Florida-Virginia battle over the long run are thousands of jobs, billions in private and public spending, and bragging rights for two proud states. Human spaceflight has been one of Florida’s main claims to fame for 50 years.

Of more immediate concern is hundreds of millions in scarce federal funding in NASA’s 21st Century Launch Complex program. The multi-year effort is focused on upgrading the Kennedy Space Center’s aging facilities, making the Cape attractive to commercial launch providers, and boosting employment after the space shuttle program ended. The House has proposed spending $60 million on the program in FY 2012; the Senate supports the Obama Administration’s request of $168 million.

Language in Senate spending bill allows NASA to spend money upgrading launch facilities at other locations. Although no specific center is mentioned, Wallops would certainly be a prime candidate for upgrades. And it has a powerful ally, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, in its corner.

Mikulski was instrumental in persuading Orbital Sciences Corporation, which is located just across the river in Virginia, to launch the Taurus II from Wallops Island instead of Florida. The NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, which is also located in Mikulski’s state, operates the Wallops Facility. Both Orbital and Wallops employ Maryland residents, and the spaceport is a key contributor to the regional economy of the Delmarva Peninsula that includes parts of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

If the commercial space industry develops as hoped, Cape Canaveral could have more launches than it can handle in a year, requiring commercial crew and cargo providers to seek out other spaceports such as Wallops and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Upgrades and expansion will likely be necessary to keep the American companies that are pioneering this area from searching out easier and cheaper launch options overseas. Cape Canaveral has never recovered from an earlier overseas shift in the commercial satellite launch market.

The uncertainty about the market is a key issue here. If commercial spaceflight doesn’t develop as planned, NASA could be left trying to maintain two underused facilities in Florida and Virginia. Given the difficulty the space agency has in maintaining its sprawling network of aging field centers, and the political impossibility of closing any of them, that would be a very bad path to go down.