Sky-high hopes for future of Wallops

Va., Md. officials foresee busy niche for launch facility

November 25, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

The Dec. 11 blastoff of one of the most powerful rockets ever launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia could also boost the region's ambition to become a commercial spaceport.

With good weather, the morning flight of the 69-foot, four-stage Minotaur I rocket should be visible for hundreds of miles as it rises to place two satellites into an orbit 254 miles high.

If it's successful, the spacecraft will be the first in 21 years to reach orbit from Wallops Island, just south of Assateague Island. The last attempt, in 1995, ended in a spectacular, explosive failure 48 seconds after liftoff.

The December launch will also be the inaugural flight from the little-known Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).

The commercial launch pad was built on NASA property in 1998 by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. Maryland joined the venture in 2004 to help spur growth of the aerospace and launch service industries on both sides of the state line.

Launch preparations at MARS have generated as many as 100 jobs in the area, according to Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development. And he hopes that's just a beginning.

"We'll see it grow," he said.

The Air Force says it has contracted for two more Minotaur launches from MARS in 2007, and others are in development for liftoff in 2009.

"I believe there's the potential for launches out of Wallops that would resupply the International Space Station after the [space] shuttle has outlived its usefulness," Melissaratos said.

That could eventually mean six to eight launches per year with heavy-lift rockets - Delta-class vehicles more than three times the size of the Minotaur 1, said Spaceport Manager Rick Baldwin.

"That's quite a change," he said. "It would be a phenomenal benefit for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, and both states in total."

But first, MARS' inaugural customer, Orbital Sciences Inc. of Dulles, Va., will have to get the Minotaur's two satellites into orbit.

One is an 814-pound Air Force "micro-satellite" called TacSat2. Its $18 million mission is to demonstrate that the Air Force can design a satellite, build it and get it launched and operational - all in just 15 months.

Today's military satellites can take 10 years or more from concept to launch, at a cost in the billions. And they soon become technologically obsolete.

Eleven TacSat experiments will test gear for telescopic photography; precision navigation, ground communications, detection of radar, radio and hand-held communications, and identification of ships at sea, according to an Air Force Research Laboratory spokesman.

Also hitching a ride will be the 22-pound GeneSat1, a biological experiment developed by NASA's Ames Research Center in California. It will carry harmless E. coli bacteria in a miniature laboratory designed to study genetic changes in space - a concern for humans on long-duration space flights.

The fate of the two satellites will hinge on the performance of the hybrid Minotaur launch vehicle, configured by Orbital.

Its first two stages are Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, retired from the nation's nuclear arsenal under arms reductions treaties and reassigned to orbit government payloads.

The third and fourth stages are off-the-shelf Pegasus XL rockets, normally launched from high-flying aircraft to put small satellites into orbit. The entire 69-foot "stack" can lift up to 1,500 pounds to low Earth orbit.

In five launches, none has failed. "It's an innovative way to ... produce a very low-cost rocket that's reliable and available today to launch government satellites," said Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski.

The Wallops Flight Facility is best known for its work with sub-orbital rockets and balloons, mostly for government-sponsored military, science and weather research. More than 15,000 rockets have been launched there since the first blastoff in July 1945.

Of the total, only 27 have been orbital missions, according to Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler.

Four of 21 ground-launched satellites failed to reach orbit, he said. Six other spacecraft have been launched by aircraft flown offshore from Wallops' airfield, the most recent in 1999.

The most recent orbital launch attempt from a pad at Wallops was on Oct. 23, 1995. METEOR-1 blasted off atop a 52-foot, 100-ton Conestoga 1620 rocket - the first commercial rocket ever launched from Wallops and the biggest ever.

Liftoff looked perfect. But 48 seconds into the flight, one of the 52-foot rocket's six strap-on boosters malfunctioned, and a NASA range safety officer pushed the button that blasted the remaining motors apart. Smoky debris rained down from several miles above the ocean.

No one was hurt, but the mishap ended the $75 million commercial venture and pulverized 14 on-board experiments designed by government, commercial and university researchers.

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