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Alaska sees opportunity to snare more rocket launches

Posted: December 1, 2010

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KODIAK, Alaska -- Nestled on a barren bluff on the southern shore of Kodiak Island - Alaska's emerald isle - a state-owned launch complex is vying to draw space business to America's last frontier.

The Minotaur 4 rocket launches from Kodiak just before sunset Nov. 19. Credit: Steven Young/Spaceflight Now
The Kodiak Launch Complex hosted its first satellite launch in more than eight years Nov. 19, successfully sending a Minotaur 4 rocket into orbit on a $170 million mission with seven government and university satellites.

Another Minotaur 4 rocket is being readied for blastoff in May with a U.S. Air Force technology demonstration satellite, but the spectacularly picturesque and modern facility could then fall silent.

It's up to Dale Nash, a former space shuttle engineer and operations manager, to showcase the perks and benefits of Kodiak to the launch industry.

Nash is chief executive officer of Alaska Aerospace Corp., a state-owned corporation tasked with luring space enterprises to one the least populated states in the union.

Kodiak has one of widest launch ranges in the world, supporting rocket flights flying to the southeast, south and southwest toward polar and other high-inclination orbits. Nash is working on deals with small satellite launch providers and companies with medium-lift rockets to take advantage of Kodiak's geographic fortune.

"From an orbital mechanics point of view, it's a great location," Nash said. "We have azimuths from 110 degrees to 220 degrees, a wide open azimuth to launch in."

The wide open Gulf of Alaska and the adjacent land-free slice of the Pacific Ocean mean officials do not have to worry about overflights of population centers or private property, a key concern for rocket launches.

Satellites launched from Kodiak can reach inclinations from 60 degrees to more than 100 degrees, encompassing popular gravity-neutral, Molniya, tundra and sun-synchronous orbits.

Kodiak is also outfitted to conduct back-to-back responsive suborbital or space launches thanks to a state-of-the-art range and control infrastructure.

AAC, established in 1991, owns and operates the Kodiak Launch Complex. The corporation employs about 50 people, about 30 of which work full time at Kodiak. Another contingent is based in Anchorage, home of AAC's corporate headquarters.

Launches from Kodiak began in 1998, and Friday's mission marked the 15th flight originating from the 3,700-acre facility. Besides space launches, Kodiak has also been the site of missile defense tests.

Nash said the federal government has invested about $150 million in the complex, while the state of Alaska has provided approximately $25 million.

Aerial file photo showing Kodiak's launch pad facility. Credit: AAC
The Missile Defense Agency announced earlier this year plans to move target missile launches to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, leaving Kodiak without an anchor customer.

The Air Force agreed to two Minotaur 4 rocket launches from Kodiak, including the Nov. 19 flight. Rocket motors for another Minotaur 4 rocket are already at Kodiak for launch of the military's TacSat 4 payload in May, according to Lou Amorosi, the Orbital Sciences Corp. executive vice president for the Minotaur rocket program.

Amorosi said TacSat 4 is the only other Minotaur rocket mission currently scheduled to launch from Kodiak.

The MDA's contract with AAC provided sustaining funds to keep the launch complex operating, but the Air Force deal includes a lesser daily utilization pay rate. The state of Alaska may need to funnel more money into AAC to ensure Kodiak's future availability.

"It's challenging, but it's optimistic with the Air Force and the small launches that are coming through," Nash said. "I have asked for some sustaining budget from the state as well as asked for backing to really go approach Orbital or SpaceX to get them to be an anchor tenant."

SpaceX is already planning to locate polar launches of its Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., but Nash said his company continues a dialogue with the start-up firm.

Orbital Sciences' Taurus 2 rocket, a medium-lift liquid-fueled launcher, is the other target customer for Kodiak's potential expansion into a larger class of boosters. Orbital has not selected a West Coast launch site for the Taurus 2, but the company is considering Kodiak and two facilities at Vandenberg for polar missions.

The stakes are high in the bid for Falcon 9 and Taurus 2 flights.

"If you win it, you win it for a generation," Nash said. "The unfortunate part is if you lose it, you lose it for a generation and it might be 25 more years before any more rockets come around."

A new launch pad built to handle liquid-fueled rockets will cost about $80 million. Surveyors have already selected a site adjacent to Launch Pad No. 1, Kodiak's existing space launch facility tailored for solid rockets such as the Minotaur, Athena and Taurus families.

A new solid motor storage facility was built at Kodiak to house Minotaur and Athena stages, supporting a backlog of missions if the manifest gets busier. Lockheed Martin Corp. has identified Kodiak as the primary West Coast launch site for the reincarnated light Athena 1 and 2 rockets, but the Athena does not have any confirmed customers.

Kodiak's first orbital launch in 2001 was an Athena 1 rocket.

"That was the rocket this facility was designed for, but not the only one," Nash said.

Artist's concept of a Taurus 2 rocket on the launch pad in Virginia. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Polar satellite launches of civil government Earth observation and weather monitoring spacecraft are a key segment of the medium-lift rocket business.

A Government Accountability Office report last week identified more than a dozen science missions through 2020 awaiting rocket assignments. Many of those satellites will likely be placed on Falcon 9 and Taurus 2 rockets launching from Vandenberg or Kodiak.

SpaceX and Orbital are already operating or developing launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Wallops Island, Va., respectively. Working under agreements and contracts with NASA, the companies are launching early rocket test flights from those sites before starting commercial cargo resupply services to the International Space Station.

The GAO concluded the retirement of the venerable Delta 2 rocket, which flies from Florida and California, could force delays and rising launch costs for Earth observation missions as the new Falcon and Taurus vehicles are tested and readied for commercial service.

"I don't think that market is going away," Nash said. "That's been our workhorse forever."