By Jack Kennedy
“A proposal by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to support commercial launches of human spaceflight missions from Virginia’s Eastern Shore poses a ‘direct threat’ to the economy and workforce of Florida,” roared late-September articles in Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel, announcing an assault on the ambition of making Virginia’s commercial spaceport more capable.
During this past summer, NASA sought public input on an environmental study relating to land-use changes at the Wallops Flight Facility in Accomack County. The environmental impact study seeks to address the possibility of human space flight requirements at the commercial Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
The petulant Space Florida aerospace business interest group, funded by the Florida Legislature, used the NASA Wallops environmental impact study to engage in a business attack on Virginia’s fledgling pro-commercial spaceport launch business. Using an environmental study to advance Florida civil space business is, in my personal judgment, an ethically lacking business practice or, worse, a crude attempt to place a fix against launch market competition.
Space Florida appears worried that Virginia is emerging as a business competitor and in that worry is losing any sense of fair play. The Florida space business leaders have never accepted that Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. selected Virginia over Florida three years ago to launch cargo to the International Space Station beginning early next year.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Space Florida seeks to employ a federal environmental regulatory scheme public hearing mechanism to snipe at the insightful spaceport investments made by the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. Bob McDonnell. Space Florida appears to have been on a mission of business sabotage, not environmental impact concern.
Virginia would never use an environmental study to seek to undermine the recently announced $38 billion American taxpayer-funded civil space rocket booster to launch from Florida’s coast. The Space Florida effort is an abuse of federal environmental law process. Worse still, by seeking to deprive Virginia of space business investment and jobs, Space Florida makes clear its desire to establish a monopolistic space launch practice, thereby increasing costs. America needs business competition — now more than ever.
It is, nonetheless, essential that the members of the Virginia congressional delegation take notice, especially Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on space; Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader; and Sen. Mark Warner, a member of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on space. Space Florida’s efforts to inflict Virginia with a “poison pill” merits situational awareness, if not private rebuke, by our federal leaders.
It is wrong for Space Florida to gain billions of dollars in federal civil space contracts while begrudging Virginia’s right to secure commercial space launch jobs for the Eastern Shore facilities. It is wrong for Florida to seek hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance its space launch facilities while seeking to deny Virginia any small measure of opportunity.
The Florida action has brought due attention to the potential of Virginia’s spaceport to field and launch human space flights from Wallops Island. After all, Florida is the undisputed expert in human space launch activities. In that sense, the Florida verbal attack on Virginia’s spaceport may be a compliment. The attack is certainly worthy of review by all those in Virginia now studying the future governance and direction of “the little spaceport that could.”
The space business bottom line is for Virginia’s governor and its congressional delegation to advance NASA’s commercial crew budget in the upcoming federal budget to the Senate appropriation numbers $300 million to $500 million.
Virginia will celebrate competition for the future with healthy respect for other aerospace competitors. We all win when human space access costs decline, and decline again, through open-market competition. Commercialization of space launch and pad facilities will bring more opportunities forward in both Virginia and Florida.