As Shuttle Program Ends, States Step Up Roles in Space

By: - June 29, 2011 12:00 am

The 62-foot-tall Minotaur 1 rocket that stands on the launch pad on Wallops Island, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, encapsulates much about the near future of space flight in the United States. It is a future where the federal government is a major player-and a paying customer-but many of the day-to-day duties are left to private companies and state agencies.

The Minotaur 1 is a commercially built rocket, but it owes much to the federal government. Its payload is an Air Force satellite. Many of its components, including the initial motor that will propel the rocket from zero to 3,300 mph in less than a minute, are leftovers from decommissioned Minuteman missiles. The launching site for this mission is NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, best remembered for putting two monkeys into space in early tests for the Mercury missions of the 1960s. Lately, NASA’s launches at Wallops have been modest-mostly weather balloons and research rockets.

But the state governments of Virginia and Maryland are bringing more ambitious projects back to the remote island. Since 2006, four Minotaur 1 rockets have taken off from the states’ jointly operated Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) , which leases facilities from NASA. This week’s 12-minute rocket flight will launch an imaging satellite aimed at helping U.S. troops in Afghanistan and other trouble spots in the region. 

For this week’s flight, the military contracted with NASA to put the satellite aloft. The space agency, in turn, is paying the spaceport to run the launch. While NASA will still oversee many safety aspects of the mission, it will use a launch pad owned by the spaceport and built especially for large rockets like the Minotaur 1. The state-run spaceport owns the fueling facilities and rents the cranes that stack the rockets.

As NASA closes a chapter of its history with the final mission of the space shuttle program planned for next week, the federal government is increasingly asking the private sector to pick up routine duties, like resupplying the International Space Station. The hiatus in manned missions from the United States, meanwhile, is sparking interest in space tourism. Increasingly, states are jockeying for the prestige, money and jobs here on earth that would accompany trips to the heavens.

A fierce competition

Five of the eight Federal Aviation Administration licenses to launch rockets into space belong to state governments. (Federal agencies, such as the Air Force and NASA, do not need FAA licenses.) The state-run sites, in addition to Wallops Island, are in Florida, Oklahoma, Alaska and New Mexico. Other jurisdictions in Florida and California hold licenses, too.

But the license is no guarantee of commercial success, especially with so many of the facilities angling for the same customers.

And the competition is especially fierce among facilities trying to lure suborbital flights for space tourists. Construction of a hangar is already underway at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico to house Virgin Galactic, a venture of British billionaire Richard Branson that promises to send hundreds of thrill seekers into space for a few minutes of weightlessness. Virgin plans to use a winged vehicle, called SpaceShipTwo, that will take off and land like a normal plane. The runway it will use at Spaceport America, though, is nearly two miles long and 200 feet wide.

The state of New Mexico is paying $140 million of the $209 million bill for the new facility, but spokesman David Wilson says that, because of a 20-year lease with Virgin Galactic, the state is on course to recoup its expenses. The spaceport operates in a similar way to any municipal airport, he says. The state owns the property and customizes for its tenants, but it makes the money back in rent. Virgin is expected to pay the state at least $150 million, and possibly up to $250 million, “In the worst case scenario,” Wilson says, “we don’t quite get it all back. In a better scenario, we get it back. So we’ve covered our investment bet.”

Wilson ticks through the advantages he thinks will put the New Mexico facility above its competitors: clear skies and high elevation; proximity to protected air space and research talent at the nearby White Sands Missile Base; and thousands of square miles of sparsely populated land in the area.

And, of course, the facility is brand new. “We always say that Spaceport America is the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport,” Wilson adds. “We’re being built from the ground up.”

In Oklahoma, though, pre-existing facilities are the selling point. Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority , argues that the state’s converted Strategic Air Command base offers benefits that cannot be found anywhere else, including control over its own, non-military airspace and a runway that is nearly a mile longer and 100 feet wider than the one in New Mexico. The Oklahoma Spaceport’s control over its airspace means missions would not have to be scrubbed when the military launches missions of its own, Khourie says.

In Khourie’s view, the sheer size of the runway-roughly comparable to that of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.- is crucial for experimental spacecraft now being developed.  “If you’re an engineer, you don’t have to design a high-lift wing with slats and flaps (in order to) reduce your take-off roll or your landing roll,” Khourie says. “So spend your money on other components of the vehicle.”

The Virginia facility operated by MARS presents different selling points. It boasts about its launch trajectory. When rockets take off from Florida, they travel up the Eastern seaboard, across western Europe and then over the Middle East. For private operators, that path across so many populated places drives up the price of insurance. Rockets that lift off from Wallops Island, though, arc over the Atlantic Ocean and remain above water, except a brief time over Brazil.

The competitors are not relying on natural advantages alone. MARS spokeswoman Laurie Naismith points to an FAA report that concluded Virginia has taken the lead “in the area of innovative incentives to lure space transportation companies.” Among the sweeteners offered by Virginia are exemptions from liability for human space flight and a “zero gravity, zero tax” policy that charges no income tax on money earned through training or the flights themselves. The state has also invested in the Wallops facility by burying power lines that threatened to snag the bulky equipment needed to launch larger rockets.

A long reach

There is one point all the competing officials seem to agree on. As Oklahoma’s Khourie puts it, “The private sector side is on the verge of doing some very big things.”

“It’s not just rocket launches,” says MARS’ Naismith. “This is an industry that has got applications and research and different things that need to be manufactured and built and designed. New inventions need to take place. It’s done all over the United States and all over the world.”

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