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Is commercial space Virginia’s next jobs frontier?

In 1998, when Virginia, working with NASA, wanted to have Wallops Island, on our Eastern Shore, designated a Space Port, I remember thinking that it sounded a bit silly. After all Wallops Island was a test facility that for years launched nothing larger than a few small suborbital missiles for test and meteorological purposes. The idea that it could launch rockets with large scale payloads seemed outlandish - one of those grand economic development ideas that sound good in a press release but never comes to much.

But, that’s not what happened at Wallops. The Virginia Space Port, now called the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port, is in the forefront of private sector space technology. In April, Orbital Dynamics, a well-known satellite and rocket manufacturer based near Dulles Airport, launched the largest ever privately built spacecraft. The Antares rocket, carrying the Cygnus spacecraft was 133 feet tall and weighed over a half a million pounds. April’s launch was a test to demonstrate the company’s ability to place a vehicle, capable of resupplying the International Space Station, in orbit. It worked. But, that’s just the test.

Later this summer Orbital Dynamics will launch another resupply vehicle, this time, stocked with 1,600 pounds of provisions and supplies that will automatically dock with the space station. And with that Virginia will be playing an active part in our manned spaceflight program. Just like Cape Canaveral, Florida, Edwards Air Force Base in California and Houston, Texas. The company has a contract for eight more missions to supply the station. That should keep the Wallops operation in business for some time to come. However, there are bigger plans in the works. Virginia has an aggressive plan to keep investing in Wallops and expanding its offerings to other spaceflight companies.

There is, however, more to this than the drama and excitement of launching a spacecraft that’s already gotten a lot of attention. Space exploration takes in a wide range of specialties and industries. There are the propulsion systems, the advanced materials used in constructing the spacecraft, the communications and navigation systems, the advanced computers and automation systems, and the logistics of organizing and managing a launch.

While much of Orbital’s work is based at its headquarters, manufacturing sites, and at the launch facility, it still contracts with a wide range of companies. There are a number of subcontractors and consultants in Northern Virginia and at least one in the Fredericksburg area. That, however, is probably just the beginning. Private sector space represents the beginning of an entirely new industry for the Commonwealth. And the timing, with cuts in defense in security spending starting to hit home, couldn’t be better. Our region’s workforce is technical, with skills in aerospace, communications, and information technology. That’s just the kind of expertise an emerging commercial space industry is going to need.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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