Wallops officials seek growth in launch activity with Rocket Lab

Updated at 7:10 p.m. EST with launch slip.

WASHINGTON — Electron’s first launch from Wallops will mark what spaceport officials hope will be the start of a new era of increased launch activity there.

Rocket Lab said on Dec. 15 that its first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Va., slipped two days to Dec. 18 between 6 and 8 p.m. EST. The company said NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration are still working to complete the range documentation needed for launch. A backup launch opportunity is available on December 19.

The introduction of the Electron, delayed for two years due to problems developing and certifying a NASA autonomous flight termination system, comes as new launch vehicles enter the market and seek sites from which to throw.

“We have a lot of interest, from both international and domestic rocket vendors, to see if they can get a launch opportunity from MARS,” said Ted Mercer, CEO and executive director of Virginia Space, who operates the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) where Launch Complex 2 is based. He spoke at a Dec. 14 briefing about the upcoming Electron launch.

He said “several” launch companies had been discussing the launch with him since MARS, but did not identify any. “Interest is high,” he said, including working on a deal with a non-US launch vendor. “We are willing and able to discuss with new vendors launching from MARS.”

At a media event in June, Mercer said it was working with companies to understand their needs. Some companies, he said then, were looking to use methane rather than kerosene as fuel. “We are already planning those,” he said, along with upgrades to launch control facilities to replace old blockhouses.

In addition to the MARS facilities, there are two “platforms” at Wallops with only the most basic infrastructure, such as a concrete slab and light towers, which could be used for small launchers. Bob Jameson, deputy director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said in June that these were built by DARPA for potential use in its DARPA Launch Challenge, and are still owned by that agency but operated. by NASA.

“It represents the future of a multi-user spaceport,” he said of those flat pads. “The emerging small launchers would bring all their hardware and operate there.”

The main user of MARS today is Northrop Grumman, which launches its Antares rocket for Cygnus cargo missions to the International Space Station from Launch Pad 0A on MARS and Minotaur rockets from Launch Pad 0B. (Virginia Space designates Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 as Launch Pad 0C.)

However, Minotaur launches are infrequent and Antares will pause after another launch early next year as Northrop works with Firefly Aerospace on a new version of the rocket to replace its existing Ukrainian first stage and Russian engines. . This new version, the Antares 330, will also launch from Launch Pad 0A on MARS, but not until late 2024. In the meantime, Northrop will launch Cygnus missions on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from Florida.

During this hiatus, Rocket Lab could become the primary tenant of MARS. Company executives said on a Nov. 9 earnings call that they plan to conduct four to six Electron launches from Wallops, out of 14 total Electron launches, in 2023. The company is also building a factory just outside the gates of Wallops where it will produce its Neutron Reusable Vehicle, which will launch from a new pad at Wallops as early as 2024.

This activity is synonymous with jobs for the region. “We see a very large number of jobs” coming from the electron and neutron business at Wallops, Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said during the Dec. 14 briefing. “It’s in the hundreds. We’re looking to establish a pretty sizable footprint here.

David Pierce, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said he was working with officials in the East Coast region on issues ranging from launch-related tourism to education and manpower for support a higher launch rate. Wallops-related activities now have an economic impact on the region of $1.4 billion a year, he said, “and we don’t see anything but that growing with investment and growth. Peter’s confidence in Wallops”.

Mercer said it expects the expected increase in launch activity to attract more vendors to the region to support Rocket Lab and other launch companies. “That’s another dimension that you’ll see in terms of growth and economic impact on the East Coast.”

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