Commercial manned flights from Wallops may be in the future

December 21, 2023
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Photo courtesy Virginia Spaceport

By NATHANIEL CLINE, Virginia Mercury

According to an article by Nathaniel Cline in the Virginia Mercury newspaper, commercial flights into space are still a ways away from being launched in Virginia. But the industry is weighing the possibilities as operations continue to expand at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.

“It’s a neat idea,” said Major General Ted Mercer, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Spaceport Authority. “If nothing else, flying space tourism out of [the spaceport] would be neat.”

He’s not the only one interested. Earlier this December, the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated $20 million to the authority to aid the commonwealth’s economic development efforts in the aerospace sphere. The allocation was recommended by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration and got unanimous approval.

The action follows Northrop Grumman’s announcement that it will partner with Firefly Aerospace to develop two new rockets. The authority will use the $20 million to modify one of its three East Coast orbital launch pads to accommodate larger rockets such as the Antares rocket, which can carry more than 17,000 pounds and is primarily used to supply NASA missions.

Northrop Grumman’s next rocket is expected to carry more than 22,000 pounds, while Firefly’s Medium Launch Vehicle, or MLV, can carry more than 35,000 pounds.

According to Mercer, modifications to the launchpad will help Northrop Grumman continue resupplying the International Space Station and compete for contracts to transport other government cargo.

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“It seems that’s the direction that launch facilities are heading, and in five years from now we might be anticipating Christmas gifts of spaceflight as tourists,” said Commonwealth Transportation Board member E. Scott Kasprowicz, who served as deputy transportation director in Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration, at the board’s Dec. 4 meeting.

“I won’t say we’re in a position to support it,” Mercer said. However, he continued, “we are discussing it with the lift providers.”

Mercer said Rocket Lab is the only aerospace manufacturer and launch service provider at the spaceport interested in developing a rocket to transport people.

“Rocket Lab wants to human-rate the new neutron rocket, but the other customers have not talked about human-rating their rockets,” Mercer said. “But we are in discussion about that because we do see that that has the potential to come for the future.”

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Virginia is one of four states, alongside Alaska, Florida and California, to have a spaceport and a license to launch rockets into outer space.​​ Mercer said the commonwealth has provided $176 million to the spaceport, which has been owned and operated by the Spaceport Authority since its establishment in 1995.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the authority increased the number of annual jobs around the spaceport from about 3,336 to 4,597, paying more than twice the average salary of the surrounding communities.

Mercer said that for every dollar Virginia has invested into the spaceport, the commonwealth receives nearly $3 back in economic return.

The director said there is sufficient land for the spaceport’s current operations, but expansions could require more area.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller III, who serves on the authority’s board of directors, said the spaceport is a “real gem” in Virginia.

“We’re very excited to have you in the transportation sector of the commonwealth, and we’re pleased about how y’all are executing and performing and look forward to continuing to support you and seeing where this thing can get to,” Miller said.

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