The New Space Race
The sky filled in bright orange as the conflagration rose, sending pieces of burning debris scattershot through the air. The smoke was thick, and a low rumble shook the ground, smashing the windows of nearby homes.
The Native Americans once called this place Kegotank, but this inferno probably would have put them at a loss for words.
“We saw a big flash, and then a big black cloud of smoke came up,” says Cynthia Bhagwandin, who watched the blaze from her front yard. “The rumbling was like a thunderstorm rumble, 20 times louder.”
The Antares rocket launched from Wallops Island had exploded, and the state is now taking a long look at its funding for spaceflight. Following the explosion, Orbital Sciences Corporation and Virginia pointed fingers at each other concerning who should cover damage to the launch pad.
The Federal government has agreed to cough up $20 million to repair the pad, and a new engine for the Antares is hoped to prevent another accident. But until an agreement can be reached to insure the launch pad for future missions, the Antares will remain grounded.
With so many pieces in the air, what does the future of Virginia spaceflight look like?
It’s a cool, sunny morning in January, and Keith Koehler is behind the wheel of a gray Dodge minivan with U.S. Government plates. We’re driving through the low marsh of Wallops Flight Facility, and the juxtaposition of wildlife set against huge satellite dishes gives the feeling of an outpost on some alien planet.
“It’s quiet, very quiet,” says Koehler of the surrounding area in his soft Louisville twang. “It’s just a slower pace than living in the city, I guess.”
Koehler’s start at NASA began in 1978 while working on his undergraduate degree. Like many at Wallops, Koehler has never actually seen a major launch; he’s been too busy working during liftoff. Located just south of Chincoteague Island, this land was purchased in 1949 by NASA’s forerunner NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In addition to the Antares, the facility launches sounding rockets and science balloons, and has monitored climate change for decades.
Crossing a massive two-lane bridge, we arrive at Wallops Island, a thin sliver of land five miles long and a quarter-mile wide at its thickest point. Fenced off from prying eyes is launch pad “0A,” where the Antares rocket exploded. Next to it sits a burned out hull of a sounding rocket assembly building.
“When the explosion happened, the whole side of the building was blown out,” says Koehler, the flight facility’s news chief. The building’s destruction was no big loss; it had already been scheduled for demolition. Like everything else involved with the explosion, it’s a sign of how things could have been much worse.
This land played a role in the tests for Project Mercury, an era where man dared to dream of exploring the stars and NASA had the financial backing to do it (see sidebar for more about Coastal Virginia’s role in Project Mercury).
The NASA of today stands in stark contrast to those times. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has had to rely on other countries just to send astronauts to the International Space Station, floating within our planet’s own orbit.
Resupply missions to ISS have been contracted to American companies Orbital and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX. It’s this sense of ennui about space exploration that inspired Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Interstellar last year.
While some bemoan the current state of NASA, Wallops has benefitted from the privatization of these missions, serving as the launch facility for Orbital’s current $1.9 billion NASA contract to make eight supply runs to ISS.
In the beginning, it was all systems go. The Antares rocket’s first four launches—including two operational resupply missions to ISS—were successes, as was Orbital’s launch of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer—or, LADEE—which studied the Moon’s atmosphere and dust particles.
But on Oct. 28, just seconds after liftoff, a NASA official remotely detonated the third Antares rocket headed to resupply ISS because it was malfunctioning. The 14-story rocket was carrying a Cygnus cargo ship filled with 5,000 pounds of NASA experiments and equipment, and the explosion damaged a transporter erection launcher, lightning suppression rods and the pad itself. Though originally feared worse, damage to the launch pad is expected to total somewhere between $13 and $20 million.
Following the explosion, Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport or MARS – NASA and Orbital have overseen environmental remediation at the site, including pumping water from the impact crater and removing six inches of contaminated soil. So far, water samples have shown that back bay and tributaries nearby haven’t been effected by the explosion. The crater has been filled in, and a report is being finalized for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
For Koehler, the explosion meant working 34 hours straight, getting information and dealing with the media. The control room was locked down until the Initial Response Team could get statements from all employees, and laptops and cell phones were taken from employees to avoid leaking information. While acknowledging the seriousness of the explosion, Koehler shrugs it off.
“It’s gonna happen. They’re rockets,” he says, standing in the now empty control room. “We can’t dwell on the one. We have to keep going.”
Like Koehler, space policy expert Roger Handberg says explosions are part of the rocketry game: “You’ve got to realize—historically the failure rates are close to 10 percent for space launches. Most of those occur when you’re in the early stages of development, which Orbital is with Antares.”
October would prove a problematic time for commercial spaceflight efforts. Just three days after the incident at Wallops, Virgin Galactic’s experimental spaceflight test vehicle SpaceShipTwo exploded over the Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and injuring another. Virgin Galactic seeks to send civilians out of the Earth’s atmosphere as “space tourists.”
While Orbital’s rocket and NASA’s cargo were insured by the company, there was apparently some disagreement concerning who should cover damage to the launch pad after the accident.
According to Aubrey Layne, Virginia secretary of transportation, there is a clause in the state’s memorandum of understanding with Orbital that maintains any damage to Wallops Flight Facility from a launch should be covered by Orbital. That memorandum—first agreed to in 2008 and modified in 2012—was not made available to the press, with Layne citing that it was proprietary business information.
“There is a clause in there, there is liability for Orbital to have some insurance in place for the benefit of the spaceport—the pad and other things,” says Layne, who is also a member of the board of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority that oversees MARS. “That’s what they’re working through right now. There have been different opinions, so that’s what they’re working through.”
Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski declined to comment for this story, stating that the company was not taking media requests in the wake of its recent $4.5 billion merger-of-equals with Alliant Techsystems Inc.’s Aerospace and Defense Groups. The new company is now Orbital ATK.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for a full financial review of Wallops, and asked Virginia’s U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to request help from Congress for the repairs. On top of paying $100 million of the $150 million launch pad with state bond proceeds, Virginia already subsidizes Wallops annually. The state’s 2014–16 biannual budget gives roughly $16 million each year to the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority for fiscal years 2015 and 2016.
The solution to this political hot potato came in December with the passing of the $1.1 trillion Federal omnibus spending bill that included $20 million for repairing the pad. U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell represents the Eastern Shore, and worked with Kaine and Warner to secure funding for repairs.
“NASA Wallops provides tremendous job opportunities for our friends and neighbors across the Commonwealth,” states Rigell in an email. The son of a NASA engineer, Rigell says the failed launch is a reminder of the risks still associated with space flight. “Continued use of the spaceport is critical for future economic development in Accomack County and will ensure Virginia remains on the cutting edge of innovation and advancement in the fields of science, space, and technology.”
While the damage may be covered for now, the spaceport, Orbital and NASA still need to figure out how to insure future launches.
“Let me make one thing clear: We will not launch again without being protected. That’s number one,” says Layne. “We’re not being prescriptive as to how that’s done, all we’re saying is we’re not going to be launching any more rockets without adequate insurance to protect our citizens, and certainly the physical aspects of the pad.”
According to Handberg—who’s also a professor at the University of Central Florida—it’s usually up to the government that owns a launch facility to cover damage it sustains.
One advantage of having Orbital at Wallops is that it has the potential to attract more commercial partners to the area, especially in the unmanned aircraft—or drone—industry. NASA estimates that Wallops has an $830 million economic impact on the region, supporting nearly 5,900 jobs either directly or indirectly. In an area where chicken companies Perdue Products and Tyson Farms are the biggest employers, the addition of well-paying jobs seems to be appreciated.
“It’s very productive for this community to have here,” says Bhagwandin, whose husband works for Northrop Grumman at Wallops. Bhagwandin works as a manager at the Ocean Deli at Wallops. “It brings people, they come, they spend money, the buy houses. It’s great for the economy in this area.”
Layne acknowledges that the jobs have been good for the Eastern Shore, but says he wants to be sure the efforts are economically viable when weighed against the cost to taxpayers—especially in consideration of the annual $16 million subsidy.
“We understand there needs to be an investment, but we’ve got to make sure we’re good stewards, and that the long-term plan does get to where the benefits exceed the cost,” he says. “Otherwise ... we would have to justify why we’re doing this.”
In October’s failed launch, the Antares’ Soviet-engineered AJ-26 engine is considered the likely culprit. Last May, the engine failed a pre-launch hot-fire test at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center. Even before the explosion, Orbital had announced that it planned to replace the AJ-26.
Late last year, the company chose the Russian designed RD-181, modified from another rocket’s engine. The plan is for Russia’s Energomash to supply 60 newly built engines to Orbital. The Russian Space Agency has confirmed a contract of 20 rocket engines for close to $1 billion.
In light of Russia and America’s relationship as frenemies, the deal might sound strange, but there’s a reason behind it: the United States got lazy.
“[America] went for 30 years without building a new engine because everything was wedded to the space shuttle,” explains Handberg. “The engines that [today’s companies are] using were developed by the Soviets back in the 1960s because they spent an enormous amount of money building a variety of strong engines. We tended to buy, build for smaller vehicles.”
“We went to the Russians because they have excellent space technology. It was built to lift bigger payloads than our rocket engines were. We were more than happy to take this as a shortcut, but now that shortcut [came] back to bite us.”
Though Orbital hopes the new engine will serve as a quick fix, it does have its drawbacks. Because the engines are Russian, Orbital can’t use them for national security or military launches.
“From Orbital Sciences’ perspective it does put a crimp in their ability to compete for those national security launches,” says Handberg, adding that Orbital has another rocket in development that will be more powerful than the Antares. “They’ve obviously put a limit on what they can compete for going forward.”
Originally contracted for eight missions, the explosion left Orbital with six ISS resupply missions to fulfill. Late this year, Orbital will send an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. Because of the Atlas V’s size, it will carry extra cargo, necessitating less Antares flights to fulfill the contract. Three more Antares flights are reportedly scheduled for the first, second and fourth quarter of 2016.
Even with the explosion, Handberg says that things are going well for Orbital, and that the merger with ATK reflects well on the strength of the company.
“Orbital is in a great position,” says Handberg. “Having said that, Orbital is losing ground to SpaceX, just because of the fact that they had an accident. SpaceX has had failures, but none of them involved carrying a client’s payload.”
Easily the flashiest of commercial spaceflight companies, SpaceX is headed by PayPal co-founder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Among other things, the company hopes to create a reusable rocket that will land on a floating platform in the ocean after launches. SpaceX also sued the U.S. Air Force last year concerning the awarding of launch contracts to United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX claims that the bidding process was non-competitive.
SpaceX dropped the lawsuit in January, and the Air Force has agreed to open up future contracts for military satellites for competition.
“Right now, SpaceX is the big kahuna,” says Handberg. “In the context of commercial spaceflight, they become the big disrupter, because what they’re attempting to do is create a vehicle that can fly [cheaper than] who they’re competing with.”
If SpaceX is successful in opening up bidding for military and national security projects that could eventually be good for Orbital also. Additionally, more international payloads could come to Wallops because of Orbital.
“If they do that, Wallops stands the chance of being very successful,” says Handberg. “Virginia and Maryland made the right gamble in doing that. Florida by contrast has had problems, because the space program [originally] came to Florida without the state having to do anything.”
Though it died in committee, Del. Terry Kilgore introduced a resolution to the General Assembly that would have urged NASA to study Wallops’ potential for human spaceflight. As it turns out, NASA is already working to update its environmental impact statement, which looks at all possible uses for the facility. Handberg says manned spaceflight from Wallops is certainly possible, but adds that the infrastructure required has even gung-ho SpaceX planning to launch their manned missions from Cape Canaveral.
“It would require a lot of work, because it isn’t just building a pad,” says Handberg. “For Orbital, I think that it’s something they can think about and work on, but they’ve got to get their vehicle back, and they may need a larger vehicle to launch a crew.”
In the meantime, things are looking up for NASA.
This past month, President Barack Obama proposed boosting spending to the space agency in his $4 trillion budget for fiscal year 2016. The proposal allocates $18.5 billion for NASA, a half-billion-dollar bump up from last year’s enacted budget. The proposal includes a 55 percent raise for its manned commercial crew program above the previous fiscal year.
Once Orbital’s new Antares engine is ready to go and the details surrounding the launch pad insurance are ironed out, Wallops may very well hit it big.
“Wallops is now in position,” says Handberg. “It’s moved out of the minor leagues.”