Virginia’s Spaceport: a Century-Long Commitment

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration has settled a dispute with Orbital Science Corp. over insurance of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island. Orbital, which is in the business of launching payload into orbit, will reimburse the state for one-third of the $15 million in damages incurred by the spaceport when Orbital’s rocket exploded during lift-off in October, and it will cover the cost of insuring future launches, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Reaching a settlement is critical to the future of the spaceport, to Orbital and to Virginia’s long-term economic future. The Fairfax County-based company is Virginia’s local space champion in a business where high-flying entrepreneurs from California, Texas and Florida predominate. In 2012, when the commonwealth published a strategic plan for the spaceport, Orbital was one of the top ten  largest U.S. space system and launch vehicle manufacturers, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

This may sound excessively Buck Rogers, but I regard the spaceport as critical infrastructure for Virginia’s long-term future. One day, the launch facility could well be the nucleus of a massive space-based industrial complex and seen as vital to the state economy as Virginia’s rail or highway system. At least it will if we can nurture it through the embryonic phase of the space industry in the face of stiff competition — MARS was only one of eight FAA-licensed commercial space launch facilities in the country in 2012.

Building a world-class space industry in Virginia will take patience.  The forecast for commercial space launches, though steady, is not exactly booming in the near term:

commercial_launch_forecasts

2012 FAA forecast for all global commercial space transportation launches, 2012 to 2021.

Right now the market is dominated by NASA and the mission of providing logistical support to the International Space Station. But space-based activity is growing. The strategic report notes the need for:

  • Fixed satellite services: high definition television, Internet connectivity and very small aperture terminal satellites (which serve homes and businesses).
  • Direct broadcasting services
  • Broadband services
  • Hosted payloads: experimental payloads, technology demonstrations, scientific missions, remote sensing, weather and climate monitoring and national security.

An important emerging market is space tourism. Longer run, we can expect to see more defense-related applications, not just satellites but weapons systems. Futurist George Friedman envisions “battle stars” in geosynchronous orbit armed with hyper-missiles to rain down  upon our enemies. The potential exists for specialized manufacturing processes using the unique properties of space such as microgravity and perfect vacuum, as well as vast solar arrays that microbeam energy to earth. A step beyond would involve mining the Moon for He-3 isotope in the lunar regolith, a likely fuel for fusion power. All of these activities will require a supporting space-based (or Moon-based) infrastructure for support. Looking even further out, it is not far-fetched to imagine commercial and religious colonies establishing themselves on the Moon to emancipate themselves from oppressive earth-bound political systems, much as 17th-century colonists sought refuge in the New World.

Earth-based spaceports will emerge as critical entrepots for all of this activity. Those that establish themselves early will enjoy a major competitive advantage by attracting corporate investment, evolving business ecosystems and building economies of scale for supporting infrastructure.

It may take another century for the full potential to emerge. But our children’s children will thank us for staying the course.

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4 responses to “Virginia’s Spaceport: a Century-Long Commitment

  1. Solid post. I agree with every word.

  2. It is a good post. I do, however, take issue with the value placed on satellites for communications services. While technology has improved, satellite transmissions are still subject to more latency than fiber optic or earth-based radio services. Satellite is, however, critical to bring advanced (and basic) communications services to remote parts of the world.

  3. Headline:

    Elon Musk Wants To Launch 4,000 Satellites That Will Provide Internet From Space

    excerpt:

    ” Elon Musk is currently seeking government approval to begin testing on a project to broadcast the Internet from 4,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. He claims he wants to beam high-speed Internet to all corners of the world.

    The plan would transform SpaceX from a company based solely on rockets and spaceflight into an Internet provider to rival the likes of Comcast, Verizon, and other telecom companies in a worldwide market thought to be worth over $2.1 trillion annually. Musk’s plan is to send his Falcon 9 rocket up into space, and then deploy a fleet of satellites around the planet.

    He announced his plan earlier in the year, but it has just been released that SpaceX has made a formal request for permission from the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin testing next year. Musk wants to find out if the current antenna on his satellites would be strong enough to send the signals back down to Earth.

    This isn’t the first time that a dot-com billionaire has dabbled in Internet satellites, and probably won’t be the last either. During the 1990s, a company founded by Bill Gates aspired to do something similar, but as costs spiraled out of control, the plan eventually collapsed. Even the Internet giant of Facebook has scrapped plans for a $500 million satellite to spread the Internet to the far reaches of the world.

    But Musk is apparently fairly confident that he’ll be able to get 4,000 up and working. He claims that using lots of small machines that are both cheap and efficient will help his plans overcome previous problems of relying on larger satellites that are more difficult to replace if something were to go awry. And by manufacturing them all at SpaceX, he hopes to keep costs down and solve supply issues.”

  4. I agree it’s a feather in our cap to have this business.
    Fairfax-based who knew. Learned something today.
    Nice article.

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