Md., Va. form regional spaceport

Lower Shore facility aims to be aerospace center

Md., Va. form spaceport on Lower Shore's Wallops Island

December 05, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Maryland and Virginia officials have formed a partnership to promote the aerospace industry on the Lower Eastern Shore - an effort they anticipate will yield high-tech jobs in both states.

Creation of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, Va., marks a turning point in Virginia's eight-year effort to enhance its space-flight center adjacent to NASA's launch facility, about 30 miles south of Salisbury.

The two states hope that by combining their efforts they can attract more companies, researchers and government contracts to the site on the Delmarva coast, where rockets were first tested in 1947.

The agreement, approved Wednesday by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is a logical next step in assuring that the region can capitalize on the foothold gained in 1995 with the founding of the Virginia Space Flight Center - one of four federally approved spaceports in the country.

"This is to formalize the way the two states have been operating," said Richard D. Baldwin, spaceport manager at the center. "But we are taking even more of a regional approach. Anything that happens here has obvious impact on Maryland, too."

The spaceport will operate two orbital launch pads developed and owned by the Virginia space agency. The regional spaceport will be managed by a team from both states, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, universities in both states and the industry.

"Maryland is providing the intellectual capital, the engineering expertise at the University of Maryland, the lobbying capability to enhance the chances that Wallops will get more work," said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

"We have companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman. It is going to bring some economic activity to the Lower Eastern Shore."

Officials have laid the groundwork to establish a Mid-Atlantic Institute of Space and Technology, "a regional think tank" that will be housed at an office park in nearby Pocomoke.

Included in the consortium will be the University of Maryland, University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and Salisbury University, as well as the University of Virginia, Old Dominion University and Hampton University.

"Wallops is already the hidden gem for Maryland," said Salisbury University economist Memo S. Diriker. "When you think about all the employees at NASA, the Navy and various contractors already working at Wallops, you realize that the majority of them live, shop and play in Maryland. It's obvious we have more to gain by taking a regional outlook."

Maryland officials say federal facilities such as NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Laurel and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland could provide the Wallops agency with research and development assignments.

The launch facility could capitalize on a growing market for small- and mid-sized satellites, research and development contracts, as well as new weapons systems for the Pentagon, officials say.

Virginia officials have teamed with three of nine companies that have been awarded federal contracts to develop new rockets to launch new satellites.

Adjacent to two launchpads, the Virginia space agency expects to complete work on a new launch tower that will accommodate Air Force rockets designed to haul satellites into orbit. A dry run of the first launch is expected in June, with the real thing scheduled in 2005.

"The military is looking at improving our capability for rapid response, whether that's to strike long-distance targets with conventional weapons or to replace communications satellites," Baldwin said.

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