Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority to Focus on Small and Medium-Lift Rockets

Comments

Antares rolled out to the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA) has issued a Strategic Plan [Download PDF] that calls for the development of Wallops Island as a multi-user spaceport focused on small and medium-lift rockets to supplement existing launches and future Antares cargo flights to the International Space Station.

“The VCSFA’s location and capabilities are ideal for small and medium-lift launches,” according to the report, which covers the years 2012-17. “Although ISS resupply missions are growing, VCSFA intends to look to additional commercial launches, including the areas of defense and national security. The near-term focus is on expanding medium-lift launches as the market outlook is favorable.”

The Strategic Plan is part of a broad revamp of VCSFA under Gov. Bob McDonnell. The authority has been provided with a larger annual operating budget of $9.5 million per year for FY 2012 through FY 2016. VCSFA’s powers also were revamped and its Board of Directors overhauled to allow the authority to function more effectively.

VCSFA’s  Strategic Plan includes eight objectives and a series of action items aimed at improving and expanding operations at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) the authority runs on Wallops Island. Key objectives include attracting new launch providers, improving and expanding the infrastructure, establishing competitive pricing, forging new commercial and research partnerships, and developing VCSFA as a self-sufficient entity able to support itself.

“The VCSFA will explore the development of multi-user launch pad facilities. The Authority recognizes that this approach can be a challenge. However, cost effective management may require some sharing of facilities amongst customers because of the enormous cost of duplicate resources. This will require coordination by VCSFA with all of the customers.

“New contracts should be structured to allow both current and new customers to use MARS assets as well as any assets that Virginia has provided so that all parties are treated equally and fairly.

“Possibilities for a new launch pad or other assets for additional customers should be explored on an ongoing basis. The model of  ‘if customers come to Wallops then VCSFA will build new facilities if the benefits match the costs’ is most likely superior to the model of  ‘build it and they will come.’”

VCSFA runs two launch complexes at MARS. Launch Pad 0-B is used for small-class solid-fuel rockets that can send payloads weighing up to 8,400 lbs to low earth orbit. The pad is capable of launching Minotaur IV, Taurus I and the new Athena rockets.

Orbital Sciences Corporation will use the recently completed Pad 0-A for launches of its new Antares rocket beginning next year.

“The pad will serve as the base pad for the Antares resupply missions to the ISS,” the report states. “The pad will also be available for other Antares missions and could potentially serve other launch vehicles with some modifications.”

The report mentions the Delta II and Falcon 9 rockets as medium-lift rockets similar to Antares that could potentially fly from MARS.

The Strategic Plan calls for VCSFA to “provide a framework” for helping Orbital, which is its largest customer, to become successful with its cargo flights to ISS using Antares and the Cygnus freighter. Specifically, the plan calls for the following actions:

“Develop a contract with Orbital that provides an appropriate level of support for the current ISS contract and future missions.

“Beyond ISS contracts, understand Orbital’s launch business objectives with a view to providing the necessary support and balance with requirements of a multi-user environment.”

The strategic plan notes that commercial space tourism is still in its infancy, and that the 8,750-foot runway at NASA’s adjacent Wallops Flight Facility is an asset that could be used to attract suborbital space plane operators.

“The VCSFA recognizes the opportunities that exist and intends to monitor the development of the market for space tourism so that it may assess the potential for the Authority to provide such services at MARS,” the report states.

The Strategic Plan’s eight objectives and action items are reproduced below.

Objective 1: Provide a framework for Orbital’s success
as the “initial launch” customer

Orbital is currently the largest customer at MARS and one of the region’s largest providers of jobs. The VCSFA will work closely with Orbital to ensure that it receives the appropriate level of support to be successful in its launch operations. As of October 2012, MARS had completed construction and testing on its launch complex Pad 0-A, one of the first all-new large-scale liquid fuel launch site to be built in the U.S. in many years. Following four years of design, development, construction, testing and inspection processes, Orbital has begun on-pad operations with their Antares rocket that will be used to fulfill the company’s $1.9 billion ISS re-supply contract with NASA. Over the next several months, Orbital will complete various milestones to prepare the launch vehicle for resupply launch out of Wallops. Over the course of the next several months and years, VCSFA is committed to providing support to help ensure Orbital’s launches are successful.

Key Actions

  • Develop a contract with Orbital that provides an appropriate level of support for the current ISS contract and future missions.
  • Beyond ISS contracts, understand Orbital’s launch business objectives with a view to providing the necessary support and balance with requirements of a multi user environment.

Objective 2: Develop MARS infrastructure to meet customer demand, manage the business, and enhance competition

The infrastructure of a spaceport is a significant driver in the decision for a customer to launch from a given launch facility. The VCSFA must make it a priority to provide its current and potential customers with launch facilities that are user-friendly, safe, and easily accessible. Both the physical infrastructure on Wallops and the governance infrastructure used to manage the VCSFA business by the executive team must be adequately developed for the multi-customer environment. The physical infrastructure needs of VCSFA range from updating range equipment with modern technology to implementing effective routes/modes of transportation to and from the spaceport and launch facilities. The governance infrastructure consists of the business development, scheduling, and financial, regulatory, and compliance rules required to manage a growing business while following applicable procurement regulations. It is important that VCSFA take the necessary steps to ensure its infrastructure planning is in line with the industry requirements to ensure longevity of the useful life of MARS assets and flexibility for customer needs and information requirements.

Key Actions

Make MARS a Multi-User Facility

  • The VCSFA will explore the development of multi-user launch pad facilities. The Authority recognizes that this approach can be a challenge. However, cost effective management may require some sharing of facilities amongst customers because of the enormous cost of duplicate resources. This will require coordination by VCSFA with all of the customers.
  • New contracts should be structured to allow both current and new customers to use MARS assets as well as any assets that Virginia has provided so that all parties are treated equally and fairly.
  • Possibilities for a new launch pad or other assets for additional customers should be explored on an ongoing basis. The model of “if customers come to Wallops then VCSFA will build new facilities if the benefits match the costs” is most likely superior to the model of “build it and they will come.”

Review and Update Current Infrastructure

  • Physical infrastructure – Present facilities must be reviewed in the context of launch/mission safety combined with a reasonable expectation of growth in business from a multi customer business plan. Normal industry standard repair, maintenance, refurbishment programs for assets should be utilized.
  • Governance infrastructure – Because of the recent changes in the structure of the Authority, much of the internal workings and business functions will need to be updated. These include the on-site operations and scheduling, back office administration, pricing, cost control, contract administration and legal, business development, IT structure, etc. There are many templates available in the contracting industry and in the Authority structure of the Commonwealth.

Objective 3: Position VCSFA as a leading launch service provider

In the near-term, MARS will focus primarily on its existing launch capability in the small and medium lift launch arena, but will assess the market for other opportunities deemed suitable for Wallops under its new organizational structure. The VCSFA will work with potential customers to establish a robust, yet competitive user fee structure, to establish its core capability and areas of potential improvement.

Athena rocket

Key Actions

Focus on Small and Medium-lift launches

  • The VCSFA’s location and capabilities are ideal for small and medium-lift launches. Although ISS resupply missions are growing, VCSFA intends to look to additional commercial launches, including the areas of defense and national security. The near-term focus is on expanding medium-lift launches as the market outlook is favorable.

Create a Competitive Cost and User Fee Structure

  • Market demand for services will take precedence for launch activity at MARS. To complement demand, VCSFA will develop a competitive cost and user fee structure that attracts additional customers and new market entrants.
  • MARS will develop market based, competitive usage cost rates that reflect the MARS infrastructure plus the site, facilities, and range equipment.
  • Pricing strategy will take into account long term self sustaining operations at MARS to cover recurring annual operational costs and provide for some portion of future investment.
  • In general, these rates should be the baseline used for all customers; however, market pricing will most likely be used to acknowledge the competitive environment, costs, and investments required.
  • Continued analysis of competitor user fee structures and benefits will be undertaken.

Increase Launch Preparation Efficiency and Expand Customer Service

  • Launch preparation that includes clean facilities, warehouse, etc. is a critical factor that enables a successful launch program. Additionally, VCSFA will focus on recruitment of specialists (e.g. engineers and scientists) to support client needs.

Objective 4: Develop VCSFA as a self sustaining entity

The VCSFA is currently reliant on the funding from HB 813/SB 284, which must be appropriated each year, for the operations of the Authority. The objective of VCSFA is to gradually reduce reliance on this funding by increasing project revenues earned through launch services with an ultimate goal of becoming financially self-sufficient.

Key Actions

  • The VCSFA will work to reduce dependency on state funding through optimal use of resources.
  • The Authority will make best use of external contractors and internal management resources while maintaining schedules in a multi–user facility.
  • An effective marketing strategy will be utilized to develop sustainable revenue streams from new and existing customers and initiatives.
  • Partnerships may be developed with other states and educational institutions to share costs and benefits of launch facilities.

Objective 5: Develop an efficient and competitive organization

The VCSFA recognizes the need for a new approach to organizational management and has begun the process of reconfiguring the Board with members that have a deep understanding of this market and who recognize the potential areas of commercial opportunity for the Commonwealth. The next step is to converse with key industry players and market the “reenergized” VCSFA and MARS with the improvements and business processes the Commonwealth has implemented to position the Authority for commercial success.

Key Actions

  • VCSFA will aggressively develop and engage in a new business development strategy.
  • A proactive management and governance structure at the operational level should be provided to establish core values that focus on efficiency and mission success.
  • The Authority will work to build strategic alliances, seek sustainable investment resources, and negotiate optimal business agreements with key industry players. Additionally, efforts are underway to open a new marketing and business development office in Northern Virginia to be able to gain greater access to more customers.

Objective 6: Establish partnerships
to promote research and commercial opportunities

The space industry is growing, and with it is an increased market for research opportunities and industry specialists. Several leading educational and commercial research and development organizations in the nation have roots in or around Virginia. VCSFA will use their proximity to these organizations to establish partnerships to promote research and commercial opportunities for space launch participation.

Key Actions

Promote Aerospace Science and Research

  • With increases in commercial space flight, opportunities are expanding for many fields of research. The following disciplines will have an opportunity to use commercial space flight to expand their field of knowledge.

– Biological and physical research: Experimental payloads to investigate biological and physical responses of living things in space
– Earth Science: Observations and measurements of Earth and its systems from a new perspective that has not been intensely studied
– Space Science: Observations and measurements of space environment
– Human Research: Investigating human physiological and psychological responses to space travel

  • Additional opportunities for military research exist with military aircraft and launch vehicles.

Enhance Research Capabilities to Position Virginia as the Leading Space Authority in the U.S.

  • With the growing space industry, research is becoming increasingly important for gaining a competitive advantage in the field. The Authority will take action to enhance its facilities to support research on the ground and in space that comes as a result of increased demand for space knowledge and private sector involvement. By enhancing its research capabilities and leveraging the many organizations within the region that focus on research and development, VCSFA will work to position itself as the leading space authority in the U.S.

Expand Relationships with Educational Institutions

  • The VCSFA has the unique opportunity of being located in a state that has several of the top educational institutions in the nation, and the Authority would like to proactively seek new partnerships with these universities to become leaders in research related launches. To expand its relationships with the universities and colleges of Virginia, VCSFA will market the assets and services of MARS that would provide Virginia’s schools with necessary resources. A partnership among VCSFA and one or more of the research universities in Virginia would prove economically beneficial to the Commonwealth and mark Virginia as one of the top space states in the county.

Strengthen Relationships with Key Aerospace Industry, Military, and Research Establishments

  • The Authority has a competitive advantage in respect to its location as many of the nation’s largest aerospace, military and defense, and research organizations are headquartered or have offices in the region. Establishing and strengthening relationships with these organizations is essential to facilitating growth and demand at Wallops, and also positions the Authority to be familiar with current needs and plans of industry players.
  • The Authority may also pursue partnerships with other states in the Mid-Atlantic region, in addition to Virginia and Maryland, for access to investment funds and congressional leaders.

Objective 7: Explore space tourism and other developing opportunities

The space tourism market is in the early stages of development, and it is expected that in the next several years citizens will be able to travel to space. Several companies exist and are developing means to advance commercial human space tourism, and many of these companies have partnered with launch facilities to provide launch services. The VCSFA recognizes the opportunities that exist and intends to monitor the development of the market for space tourism so that it may assess the potential for the Authority to provide such services at MARS.

Key Actions

  • The VCSFA will assess developments in the market for space tourism and explore the potential to leverage MARS facilities in order to benefit from this developing market, and it will evaluate the potential benefits of providing this type of service, including cost benefit analysis in relation to other service capabilities.
  • The market for ‘sub-orbital’ space flight continues to grow and may present opportunities for MARS in the near future using the NASA horizontal launch facilities (an existing 8,750 foot runway). The costs of such initiatives are likely to reduce dramatically over the coming years with increased competition and demand from the private sector. VCSFA will react quickly to take advantage of any such opportunities in the future, should they become a viable proposition at MARS.

Objective 8: Stimulate economic growth
and provide a positive impact to the Commonwealth

The VCSFA will continue to seek and invest in key activities that enhance economic growth in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Today, the Commonwealth supports an advanced science and technology sector that attracts businesses in an industry which supports over 28,000 jobs in the Mid-Atlantic region. The growing commercial space transportation and related industries will address three main areas of economic growth including investment in jobs, businesses and education. VCSFA’s approach will be to work closely with economic development organizations, government institutions, educational institutions, neighboring states and businesses to encourage investment in commercial space, research and development, and related industries.

Key Actions

Develop an Industrial Hub

  • The goal of an industrial hub is to benefit businesses in the state through alliances and encourage investment through policies and incentives. Continued development of the Wallops Research Park will provide benefits for users of Wallops and MARS launch facilities. Furthermore, research centers can play an important role by helping businesses grow.
  • As the Authority is tasked with operating MARS, there is opportunity to develop VCSFA’s relationship with Maryland and to pursue partnerships with other states in the region to develop MARS as a regional economic engine. The VCSFA may leverage the resources of entities outside of Virginia to expand and operate the spaceport, which drives economic development for the region and create jobs in and alongside the space industry.
  • In September 2012, VCSFA reached a new agreement with Orbital, governing their working relationship and the allocation of assets at MARS. Orbital has agreed to launch 10 Antares missions from Wallops Island, and Virginia will fund completion of MARS improvements to support Antares missions and future customers. The Authority is now the owner and operator for all non-Antares specific hardware that can be used by future additional customers.

Create Highly Skilled Jobs in the Sector

  • The presence of an experienced, skilled workforce is important for attracting CST&EI investment in the area. The VCSFA will focus on employer and industry needs that support increased business competitiveness.
  • By working with educational institutions and providing a strong commercial environment, VCSFA will help to develop a strong platform for creating well paid and highly skilled jobs in the aerospace industry. Such a platform is needed to attract the highest quality candidates from engineering, aeronautics, and space technology colleges and institutions around the country and provide the Mid-Atlantic region with improved job opportunities.
  • VCSFA will continue to work with its existing customer, Orbital, to create new jobs through their own capital investments and work programs. The economic impact of Orbital choosing to base its cargo resupply and Antares Programs in Virginia has been substantial.

Enhance Transportation Network

  • VCSFA aims to connect launch facilities and industrial areas to improve its access and reliability. This could help support economic growth in the eastern shore and create additional growth, which will spill over to other sectors and local economies.
  • VCSFA will work closely with business and regional and state transportation agencies to develop a plan that incorporates transportation improvements to the existing network.
  • VCSFA will work closely with other stakeholders to create more efficient access to Wallops Island and enhance its transportation network supporting commercial space launches, including the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Virginia Port Authority.

Enhance Aerospace Education

  • The presence of strong universities and research programs in Virginia can attract prospective commercial space industry employees and result in a highly educated and skilled workforce that is a foundation of the space industry, and there are a number of aerospace degrees offered at universities within the region.
  • The Virginia Space Grant Consortium, a coalition of five Virginia colleges and universities, NASA, state educational agencies, Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, and other institutions, coordinates and develops aerospace-related educational and research efforts and to promote the space industry within Virginia.
  • Many of the smaller satellites launched from 2002-2011 were for universities in the United States. The university demand for satellites also continues to grow. With several universities in Virginia and many more in the region, there is a large addressable market for small satellite launches.
  • Virginia has eight aviation and space-related magnet schools designed to offer students the opportunity to enroll in the high-tech space and related engineering fields. Graduates of these programs are awarded the Advanced Math and Technology seal on their diplomas to denote successful completion of advanced coursework.
  • Virginia’s existing educational institutions play a significant role in continuing to attract aviation and space business and research. The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) was designed to bolster innovation in the aviation and space industries and advance the research efforts of Virginia’s university system. Its facilities provide private enterprises with access to academia’s intellectual capital in return for funding to advance university-affiliated research.

  • Linsey Young

    The relatively high latitude is always going to be a limiting factor here. Although it’s not as bad as Baikonur let alone Vostochny, why not build further south? Costa Rica springs to mind as a good site for a launch facility.

  • Linsey Young

    Puerto Rica even!

  • Pinkasso

    Can’t move the thing now, Virginia tax payers need to get back the $2,000,000,000.00 spent on the current “space port”