Virginia has a rocket launch site, and it’s about to grow with the most successful startup since SpaceX
With a first flight scheduled for later this year, Rocket Lab could launch once a month from Wallops
Oct. 2, 2020 at 9:30 p.m. EDT
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, down past Chincoteague toward the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, sits an isolated spit of shoreline, near a wildlife refuge, that is home to one of the most unusual, and little known, rocket launch sites in the country.
Born as a Navy air station during World War II, it has launched more than 16,000 rockets, most of them small sounding vehicles used for scientific research. But the Wallops Flight Facility, which at the dawn of the Space Age played a role as a test site for the Mercury program, is about to reinvent itself at a time when the commercial space industry is booming and spreading beyond the confines of Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
After the Federal Aviation Administration last month granted Rocket Lab, a commercial launch company, a license to fly its small Electron rocket from the facility, Wallops could soon see a significant increase in launches as the company joins Northrop Grumman in launching from this remote site. While Rocket Lab is largely focused on national security missions, Northrop Grumman launches its Antares rocket to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station on cargo resupply missions at a rate of about two a year, including a picture-perfect launch from the Virginia coast Friday at 9:16 p.m. Northrop also launches its Minotaur rocket from Wallops.
Rocket Lab wants to launch to orbit as frequently as once a month from Wallops, which would make the facility the second busiest launch site in the country, behind Cape Canaveral, which is on track to fly 39 rockets to orbit this year.
Hoping to give birth to another rocket hub on the Eastern Seaboard, the state of Virginia has over the last 25 years pumped some $250 million into what it calls the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, most of that coming in the last decade, said Dale Nash, the agency’s CEO and executive director of Virginia Space. NASA has also made some significant upgrades to the site, including a $15.7 million mission operations control center, which opened in 2018.
The state also contributed to the $15 million it took to repair a launchpad after an Antares rocket exploded in 2014.
The efforts paid off when Rocket Lab, perhaps the most successful space upstart since Elon Musk’s SpaceX, announced last year it would launch its Electron rocket from here. Once NASA signs off on the company’s autonomous flight abort system, it should be cleared to launch, with a mission coming potentially before the end of the year.
Initially, Rocket Lab looked at Cape Canaveral, of course. But there are already a lot of big companies stationed there — Boeing, the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is renovating a pad there while building a massive manufacturing facility nearby. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“We ran a competitive process,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s chief executive, said in an interview. In the end, Wallops was the winner because it had a facility nearby where the company could process its payloads, get the satellites ready for launch and then mate them to a rocket quickly.
“The whole facility is designed for rapid launch,” Beck said. “And that’s a real requirement out there right now from our national security and national defense forces, to have an ability to respond to threats quickly.”
The company plans to keep at least one rocket on site at all times so if they get the call, “we can roll out to the pad incredibly quickly and get assets on orbit.”
Rocket Lab’s Electron may be a pipsqueak of a rocket, a mere 60 feet tall, about a quarter of the size of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, but the company hopes it will be a workhorse, launching once a month from here, in flights that should be visible up and down the Mid-Atlantic.
It already has had 14 successful launches to orbit, all from its launch site in New Zealand, earning a reputation for quick turnaround in an industry where getting rockets ready to fly was once a months-long endeavor. The Pentagon has taken notice. So has NASA.
The space agency has hired Rocket Lab to launch a small satellite to the moon to serve as a precursor for human missions by testing the orbit for the space station NASA hopes will help get astronauts to the lunar surface. That mission, scheduled for next year, would be the first NASA mission to the moon since the 2013 launch of a satellite — also launched from Wallops — that gathered data about the thin lunar atmosphere.
The moon mission would be a major milestone for Wallops and Rocket Lab, which has taken a clear lead in a race to build small, relatively affordable launch vehicles that could fly small satellites to orbit frequently and on short notice. That is of particular interest to the Pentagon and intelligence community, which has long wanted the ability to quickly launch a reconnaissance satellite over, say, North Korea.
Instead of launching large, expensive satellites that stay on orbit for years and are targets for potential adversaries, the Pentagon is also interested in putting up swarms of smaller, inexpensive satellites that could be easily replaced.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put on a competition between companies to see if any could launch payloads to orbit within days of each other from two different launch sites. The DARPA Launch Challenge, as it was called, ended earlier this year without a winner. But the Pentagon has vowed to press on.
“Flexible and responsive launch is critical for the Defense Department and its desire for space resilience, and the challenge has advanced the growth of what is now a more capable launch marketplace to meet those needs than what we saw just two years ago,” Todd Master, DARPA’s program manager, said at the time.
As those capabilities grow and the newly established Space Force takes shape, officials hope Wallops, about 170 miles southeast of the Pentagon, could play a significant role.
While the number of launches now are relatively low, the cadence could grow dramatically, especially as Rocket Lab gets going. And Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, has made it clear the department wants to rely heavily on the private sector.
“We have developed a significant amount of partnerships in the national security space business,” he said during a recent event sponsored by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Like NASA, he said, “We share some of those partners. We share an industrial base.”
Wallops wants to position itself to capitalize on the growth. Though space is tight, there is some room to grow. “We’re like New York City; we can get a few more launchpads close together in here,” Nash said. “We’re urbanizing.”
“One launch a month will not be a big deal,” Nash said. “Once a week, once we get going, won’t be a big deal either. … We have the capability to grow to 50 or 60 launches a year.”
Richard Branson has also gotten into the small rocket business, founding a company called Virgin Orbit that would launch a small rocket by dropping it from the wing of a 747 airplane. But while the space industry has made strides, there are still more failures than successes, especially in the early attempts to build small rockets.
In July, Rocket Lab had a major setback when one of its Electron rockets failed to reach orbit. The company quickly found the cause of the problem, a bad electrical connection, fixed it and launched successfully in August in a remarkably fast return to flight.
While others have gone bankrupt, Rocket Lab has been the unlikely success story. Founded by Beck in 2006 with money raised by venture capitalists, it has been able to move with alacrity from design to build to launch and has a significant backlog of launches that made Beck decide it needed a second launchpad in the United States for government customers.
The goal of the company is to launch its small and relatively inexpensive rockets much more frequently with on-demand efficiency that would allow defense and intelligence agencies to get satellites into orbit fast, and for cheap: dedicated launches start at $7.5 million.
Rocket Lab’s two-stage rocket is made of a carbon composite material, and all of the primary components of the nine Rutherford engines that power its first stage are 3-D printed, the company said.
Like SpaceX, Rocket Lab intends to recover its first stages so they can be reused for future flights. Initially, Beck said, the company planned to ditch its rockets in the ocean, as had been the practice for decades. Recovering such small vehicles wasn’t worth the effort, he thought.
“Boy, was I wrong on that one,” he said.
After flying the vehicle a few times and getting a better sense of how it performed, Beck decided the company should attempt to reuse them — a decision he said would make the company more efficient.
“There was a moment when I was standing in the factory, and we’ve got Electrons coming down the production line,” he said. “And I thought, ‘How could I double this production in the shortest time possible?’ And really, the easiest thing to do was just not throw it away.”
Instead of flying the boosters back to land and then firing the engines to slow it down, as SpaceX does, Rocket Lab is going to have its booster deploy a parachute to slow it down as it falls back through the atmosphere. Then it would have a helicopter grapple it with a hook.
It successfully tested the method with a prototype in April and plans to try to catch a first stage by the end of this year.
In addition to the NASA moon mission, Beck has long been intrigued with Venus. Even before the announcement last month that scientists had discovered phosphine, a molecule that could be produced by living organisms, in Venus’ atmosphere, the company had been planning to send a probe there to look for signs of life.
The mission tentatively scheduled for 2023 would be largely self-funded and launch most likely from New Zealand, but it could be yet another coup for the company.
“If you can prove that there is life on Venus, then it’s fair to assume that life is not unique but likely prolific throughout the universe,” Beck wrote on Twitter. “That’s my view anyway.”