WASHINGTON – The new head of the Virginia Commercial Spaceport on Wallops Island says he wants to increase launch activity at the site, while acknowledging there are limits to its size.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) announced on June 10 that Roosevelt “Ted” Mercer Jr., a retired Air Force major general, will be the next general manager and executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight. Authority, which operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port (MARS) on Wallops Island. Mercer will take over on August 1 when the current head of authority Dale Nash retires.
“Under his leadership, Virginia is poised to maximize the investments we have made in our world-class spaceport and move into the future as a leader in space exploration, research and commerce,” said Northam said of Mercer in a statement.
Mercer held a variety of space-related positions during his 32 years in the Air Force, including as commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base and as Deputy Director of Operations for Air Force Space Command. Mercer retired from the Air Force in 2008 and in 2016 became Director of the Office of Interagency Programs for the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program to modernize the management of the national airspace system.
The authority convened a search committee to select Nash’s successor, which led them to Mercer. “This committee has unanimously selected the best possible candidate to take the helm of Virginia Space,” Jeff Bingham, chairman of the authority’s board, said in a briefing. “Our new CEO and Executive Director is uniquely qualified to ensure that we meet our goals and work to become increasingly active and competitive over the next decade. “
MARS currently only hosts a few orbital launches per year. Northrop Grumman performs an average of two Antares launches per year from Pad 0-A, sending the cargo ship Cygnus to the International Space Station. Nearby pad 0-B hosts occasional Northrop Grumman Minotaur rocket launches, including a Minotaur 1 launch from a National Reconnaissance Office mission scheduled for June 15.
Mercer said during the briefing that growing spaceport launch activities was a top priority, right after researching the needs of spaceport personnel. “One of the cleanest ways to start growing this business, without doing much in terms of infrastructure, is to simply get aggressive to get out and get more customers to our port of launch and our lineup. “, did he declare.
The Rocket Lab is an important factor in the future of MARS. The company built Launch Complex 2, a launch pad for its Electron rocket, next to Pad 0-A. In March, he announced that he would launch his new mid-class Neutron rocket from Wallops, using the existing Pad 0-A. This rocket will also be manufactured at a facility to be built nearby.
Regularly flying both electrons and neutrons from MARS could dramatically increase launch activity there. Nash noted during the briefing that Electron is designed to be launched from Wallops as often as once a month, while Neutron will likely launch six to eight times a year. “Between the launches of Northrop Grumman and those of Rocket Lab, we could easily do 20, 25 launches a year within a few years,” he predicted. “It’s an important cadence.”
However, the introduction of Electron has been delayed due to issues with NASA’s certification of an autonomous flight termination system that Electron, and eventually all other vehicles, will use at the stand. Nash suggested that Electron’s first launch from Wallops, originally slated for 2020, could run until November due to this certification work.
Mercer said he wanted to attract additional launch companies to Wallops. “The opportunity to grow over the next five years is extraordinary,” he said, citing the interest in small satellites from businesses and government organizations like the Pentagon Space Development Agency. “I want MARS to be the location of choice for some of these companies who want to put their satellites into orbit. “
MARS will have to supplement with other space ports for this launch activity, in particular the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida and the Kennedy Space Center. While Rocket Lab has selected Wallops for its launchers, other companies, including Firefly Aerospace and Relativity Space, are establishing launch operations at Cape Canaveral. KSC recently opened a new launch facility, Launch Complex 48, dedicated to small launchers.
Mercer suggested he would be open to building additional launch infrastructure at MARS if there is a demand for it. “If we are to continue to grow and grow our business, we need to be able to consider how we might adopt a wider range of booster and booster classes,” he said.
Nash said NASA’s master plan for Wallops includes the ability to add two or three additional launch pads, which could potentially accommodate launchers larger than Antares and Neutron. These would cost more to build than existing platforms and other infrastructure that the state has said has invested more than $ 250 million in construction.
Mercer, however, said there were limits to the growth of MARS. “Will we ever become a Cape Canaveral?” Probably not, ”he said, due to the limitations of the infrastructure that can be built there. “We will be limited to a certain extent, but we want to expand as much as possible and expand the range and size of boosters that we can take as much as possible. This will allow more customers to come to this range.