DynCorp, Va. Eye Investment In Spaceport

DynCorp, Va. Eye Investment In Spaceport

By Bob Starzynski
Staff Writer

Construction of a new launch facility will begin next month at Wallops Island, on Virginia's eastern shore, to serve communications companies seeking new ways to loft their small and medium-sized spacecraft.

Slated to start commercial launches in the fall of 1999, the facility will be part of the Virginia Space Flight Center, a state-owned aerospace campus that shares the Wallops Island site with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Plans for the project include the addition of a launch pad at Wallops that can accommodate rockets able to loft small and medium-sized satellites into orbit.The existing facility has one pad that can accommodate only small rockets. A new service tower will be added and the payload processing and integration facility already on site will be upgraded.

Wallops Island
Officials for the Virginia Space Flight Authority, the state board that overseas the space flight center, are in discussions with a Virginia systems integrator to be a significant investor in the $10 million project as well as the commercial operator of the facility. Plans call for the deal to be finalized by year's end, said authority officials, who would not name the company.

However, a source at Reston, Va.-based DynCorp said that DynCorp is currently in negotiations to fill that role. Charlene Wheeless, a DynCorp spokeswoman, could not confirm that negotiations are taking place. But she did say that DynCorp is interested in that project.

"We are looking at the business of helping to manage and run the facility and market some of the launches," Wheeless said. "But we have not been awarded the contract. So, we cannot talk about whether we are in negotiations."

Wayne Woodhams, deputy executive director of the authority, said, "I can tell you that DynCorp was one of several companies that expressed interest in being the [facility operator], but I can't tell you anything further."

Authority officials are trying to secure firm commitments from three companies for launches at the facility. They declined to identify the companies but noted that only five companies have rockets that could use the facility. They are Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., Boeing Co. of Seattle, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., EER Systems Corp. of Vienna, Va., and Universal Space Lines of Newport Beach, Calif.

The authority plans to have those launch contracts completed by early January. "We have three memorandums of understanding for providing launch services for satellite programs," said Billie Reed, executive director of the authority. "This needs to be a self-sustaining project. Of course, we have start-up costs like any business."

The authority's directors said they have enough money in hand to proceed with construction and do not need more firm launch commitments before the groundbreaking next month.

The Wallops launch facility was built more than 50 years ago and has been used for infrequent launches of small government research rockets. NASA's launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the sprawling facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., are used regularly to launch a wide variety of commercial and military satellites.

The new launch pad at Wallops will be used to send small- to mid-size commercial, low-earth-orbit satellites into space. LEO satellites are growing quickly in popularity for such commercial applications as global wireless telephone, data relay and tracking services. For example, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. alone has said that it will put 500 such satellites into orbit in the next 10 years.

"There will be a lot of money spent putting those types of satellites into space," said Tom Meagher, an analyst with Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., a Washington investment bank and stock brokerage.

Wallops proponents say the Virginia site is more appealing for commercial launches because the top priority of officials at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg is to launch space shuttle and national security satellites.

If a space shuttle launch is postponed, all other schedules at those facilities must be changed accordingly, Reed said. That can prove problematic for the satellite launch companies, he added. At Wallops, satellite launches can take top priority without such a fear of schedule changes.

Wallops "is largely underutilized," said Robert Templin, president of Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology. "I think NASA was interested in dismantling the facility. So, we asked them to enter an agreement to market the facility for commercial use."

That agreement, signed this past March by NASA and Virginia officials, allows the Virginia Space Flight Authority access to NASA's facilities and services necessary for its aerospace projects.

NASA officials could not be reached for comment on the Wallops facility.

CIT, a state-sponsored technology business advocacy group, funded $500,000 of the $2.5 million that already has been raised for the new launch pad. The Commonwealth of Virginia anted another $500,000. Another $900,000 came from the Department of Commerce's Federal Economic Development Authority. The rest came from NASA, in the form of an infrastructure grant.

Barry Beneski, a spokesman for Orbital Sciences, said that Orbital has talked to the authority about scheduling launches. "Certainly we are a prime candidate to avail ourselves of those facilities," he said. Orbital builds the air-launched Pegasus launch vehicles and the medium-sized Taurus rocket.

To make the satellite launch project successful and profitable, the new pad must make four launches a year. Templin forecasted that the pad will schedule at least seven launches per year.

DynCorp, an employee-owned government contractor, has significant experience in facility maintenance and operation in the aerospace field. But the company has been making more of a move to technically savvier businesses, primarily systems integration and other information technology work.

Companies in the Washington region have helped fuel much of the growth and innovation in the telecommunications industry. Iridium LLC of Washington, for example, has launched 41 LEO satellites in the last eight months for its planned 66-satellite constellation to provide mobile telephone service worldwide. Motorola is a principal investor in Iridium.

As companies build their space networks, they are putting up the bulk of their satellites using larger launch vehicles that can put clusters of satellites into space at once. However, once those systems are in place, the companies must periodically replace individual satellites in their constellations. When a launch vehicle only needs to send up one or two satellites, the company can use a facility like Wallops.

"If a market emerges, like everyone says it will, we need to handle the business in the United States," Reed said. "Otherwise it will go overseas." Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian rockets are currently used to loft many of the satellites for the emerging global communications networks.

According to Reed, the United States has lost two-thirds of its space launch business to other countries over the past several years. With new facilities, like the pad at Wallops, the United States can get that market share back, he said.

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