Welcome to Virginia Space and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS)
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA), also known as ‘Virginia Space,' is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Space owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) and the MARS UMS Airfield.
Virginia Space aims to provide and is proud to offer full-service launch and drone testing facilities for commercial, government, scientific and academic users.
The mission of Virginia Space is to serve as a driver for Virginia's New Economy by providing safe, reliable, and responsive space Access at competitive prices, and secure facilities for testing of unmanned vehicles for integration into the National Air Space.
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
By Christian Davenport, The Washington Post
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.”
Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Successfully Launches Fourteenth Resupply Mission to International Space Station
Spacecraft named in honor of first woman astronaut of Indian origin
RICHMOND—The 14th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station successfully launched today at 9:16 p.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A located on Wallops Island. The mission, designated NG-14, is a partnership of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and Northrop Grumman. A launch attempt on October 1 was aborted due to a ground software issue that has been resolved.
Northrop Grumman’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft launched on the company’s Antares rocket, carrying approximately 7,624 pounds of cargo that includes scientific investigations, crew supplies, and hardware. The Cygnus spacecraft has been named in memory of Kalpana Chawla, who made history as the first female astronaut of Indian descent and was a member of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew. Northrop Grumman traditionally names each Cygnus after an individual who has played a pivotal role in the legacy of human spaceflight. This is the second time a spacecraft has been named after a member of the STS-107 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
“This important mission honors the legacy of Kalpana Chawla, who dedicated her life to advancing the frontiers of science through spaceflight and made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Governor Northam. “The critical equipment and scientific experiments aboard this spacecraft will improve the endurance and safety of astronauts during their long journeys to space and support our efforts to better understand the universe we live in. Strong partnerships are the key to successful missions, and the Commonwealth is proud to work together with our government and commercial partners to help shape the future of space exploration.”
NG-14 is the twelfth successful Antares launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, which serves as the homeport of the Northrop Grumman Antares launch vehicle. The Commonwealth built the $120 million launch pad to accommodate the Antares 230+ rocket configuration and Cygnus spacecraft.
This will be the third mission under Northrop Grumman’s Commercial Resupply Services-2 contract with NASA, for which the company will fly a minimum of six missions to the International Space Station through 2024. Launch pad modifications in 2019 made it possible to accommodate the loading of time-sensitive experiments into the Cygnus spacecraft up to 24 hours before liftoff, shortening the previous four-day pre-loading requirement. This is the third official mission to use this late loading capability, which has made the facility eligible for missions that include life science investigations in the payload.
“Over the past quarter century, Virginia Space has built world-class infrastructure on Wallops Island to support critical scientific research and space exploration for generations to come,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “The great collaboration among the Commonwealth, Virginia Space, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and Northrop Grumman continues to expand the potential of this strategic national asset.”
The Cygnus spacecraft will be filled with nearly 8,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, including critical materials to directly support dozens of the over 250 science and research investigations that will occur during future expeditions. The scientific investigations launching on Cygnus are part of commercial and academic payloads across a variety of disciplines, including:
- Ammonia Electro-oxidation, a scientific investigation into an innovative water recovery system for future long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars. On Earth, this process could provide vital drinkable water in remote and arid areas.
- Plant Habitat-02, a study investigating the growth of radishes under different light and soil conditions as part of ongoing research into producing food in space to help sustain crews on long-duration missions.
- Onco-Selectors, an investigation to identify candidates for safer, more effective, and affordable medicines to treat leukemia and other cancers, improving survival rates for thousands of people every year.
- The Universal Waste Management System (UWMS) project demonstrates a more efficient and reliable waste disposal process. Compact, efficient waste disposal technology also has potential applications on Earth such as during disasters, in remote areas, and those not served by traditional waste treatment systems.
- The International Space Station Experience (The ISS Experience) is a cinematic virtual reality (VR) series documenting life and research aboard the space station. Crew members have been using a customized 360-degree camera sent to the space station in December 2018 to record a few hours every week to document life and research conducted aboard the space station. A camera modified to withstand the extreme conditions of space will be launched on NG-14 in order to capture a spacewalk. It will also film Earth and the exterior of the space station for the final episodes of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, premiering this fall.
- An Estée Lauder face serum will be photographed in the space station’s iconic cupola window through a commercial and marketing agreement made as part of NASA’s efforts to open the space station for business and enable a robust low-Earth orbit economy.
The Cygnus spacecraft will arrive at the space station Monday, October 5 and will remain attached to the space station for about two-and-a-half months. It will then depart the station, and Northrop Grumman will complete two secondary missions. The Northrop Grumman SharkSat payload, mounted to Cygnus, will collect data about the performance of new technologies in low Earth orbit. In addition, the Saffire-V spacecraft fire safety experiment will be conducted. Once these experiments are complete, the spacecraft will deorbit.
Due to the 24-hour cargo load capabilities, crew treats included in the cargo were garlic, fresh fruits and vegetables, cake bites, dark chocolate covered cranberries, hot chocolate, praline pecans, chorizo, and a variety of sausage and cheeses including smoked gouda.
“I continue to be impressed by the tireless and forward-leaning efforts of Northrop Grumman, Virginia Space, and NASA Wallops Flight Facility to launch the NG-14 mission and every mission from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport,” said Dale Nash, CEO and Executive Director of Virginia Space. “Despite the operating challenges presented by COVID-19 as employees prepared Pad 0A, the range, and the Antares 230+ rocket, team members worked cohesively to reliably provide another round of supplies to the International Space Station.”
This year marks 25 years since the Virginia General Assembly established Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth, and the 75th anniversary of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Wallops Flight Facility. Nineteen successful missions have launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (Virginia Space) is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Space owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), the MARS Payload Processing Facility, and the MARS Unmanned Systems Test Range. The facilities are all located on the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where their mission is to provide low-cost, safe, reliable, and “schedule-friendly” access to space and secure facilities for testing unmanned vehicles for integration into the National Air Space. Virginia continues to play a key role in national security and assured access to space, as one of only four states in the United States hosting a spaceport licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch spacecraft into orbit or on interplanetary trajectories. For more information, visit vaspace.org.
Rocket Lab Completes Final Dress Rehearsal at Launch Complex 2 Ahead of First Electron Mission from U.S. Soil
All vehicle and pad system checkouts are now complete and Electron is ready for its first mission from Launch Complex 2,
enabling a vital new space launch capability for the nation
Wallops Island, Va., September 16, 2020 — Rocket Lab has successfully completed a wet dress rehearsal of the Electron vehicle at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia. With this major milestone complete, the Electron launch vehicle, launch team, and the LC-2 pad systems are now ready for Rocket Lab’s first launch from U.S. soil. The mission is a dedicated launch for the United States Space Force in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division.
The wet dress rehearsal is a crucial final exercise conducted by the launch team to ensure all systems and procedures are working perfectly ahead of launch day. The Electron launch vehicle was rolled out to the pad, raised vertical and filled with high grade kerosene and liquid oxygen to verify fueling procedures. The launch team then flowed through the integrated countdown to T-0 to carry out the same operations they will undertake on launch day. Before a launch window can be set, NASA is conducting the final development and certification of its Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) software for the mission. This flight will be the first time an AFTS has been has flown from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and represents a valuable new capability for the spaceport.
Launch Complex 2 supplements Rocket Lab’s existing site, Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, from which 14 Electron missions have already launched. The two launch complexes combined can support more than 130 launch opportunities every year to deliver unmatched flexibility for rapid, responsive launch to support a resilient space architecture. Operating two launch complexes in diverse geographic locations provides an unrivalled level of redundancy and assures access to space for small satellites regardless of disruption to any one launch site.
“Responsive launch is the key to resilience in space and this is what Launch Complex 2 enables,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and Chief Executive. “All satellites are vulnerable, be it from accidental or deliberate actions. By operating a proven launch vehicle from two launch sites on opposite sides of the world, Rocket Lab delivers unmatched flexibility and responsiveness for the defense and national security community to quickly replace any disabled satellite. We’re immensely proud to be delivering reliable and flexible launch capability to the U.S. Space Force and the wider defense community as space becomes an increasingly contested domain.”
While the launch team carried out this week’s wet dress rehearsal, construction is nearing completion on the Rocket Lab Integration and Control Facility (ICF) within the Wallops Research Park, adjacent to NASA Wallops Flight Facility Main Base. The ICF houses a launch control center, state-of-the-art payload integration facilities, and a vehicle integration department that can support the processing of multiple Electron vehicles to support multiple launches in rapid succession. The build has been carried out in just TBC months, thanks to the tireless support of Virginia Space, Governor Northam, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, and Accomack County.