Virginia Aims to be a Major Hub for Commercial Space Flight

Step one for Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp. is a test launch of its Anteres rocket.

Artist's rendering of an Anteres rocket launch from Wallops Island, Va. (Image: Orbital Science Corp.)

If all goes according to plan, at 5 PM on Wednesday, April 17, Virginia may take a giant leap into the final frontier. That’s when Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp. plans a test launch of its Anteres rocket, to see whether a cargo vessel designed to dock with the International Space Station properly separates from the rocket. If it does, that will clear a path to a full demonstration of the cargo-delivery system sometime around the middle of this year.    

This would mark a significant step forward in commercial space flight. It could also turn a relatively little-known NASA facility on Virginia’s Wallops Island into a new hub for commercial launches. The Wallops Flight Facility, which is part of the Goddard Space Flight Center, is one of the oldest launch sites in the world. Established in 1945, it is designed to provide fast, low-cost rocket launches, as compared to NASA’s bigger facilities in Florida. 

Companies that want to launch in Florida may find themselves getting bumped from the schedule by more pressing missions that NASA thinks are in the national interest. (Launching a spy satellite, say.) Wallops’ agility—a byproduct of its relative obscurity—is attractive to companies that need a reliable way to launch rockets, on schedule and for less money. 

The Anteres launch is part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. The goal is to develop a viable US commercial space transportation industry, effectively privatizing the transportation of cargo to and from the space station and other vessels in low-Earth orbit. Presuming that Orbital can successfully dock its cargo ship, called Cygnus, with the space station this summer, the company will begin resupply missions beginning in the fall, as part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. 

That would put quiet Wallops Island in the center of a new industry, and with that will come a lot of unfamiliar attention. According to the AP, “Those who work at Wallops Island joke that even people living on the Eastern Shore are surprised to learn about rocket launches there.” There have been 16,000 launches from the site since it was established, but as the AP notes, none of them have drawn this level of national interest.

NASA will stream coverage of the launch on Wednesday, beginning at 4 PM EDT.