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McAuliffe wants risks shared for future rocket launches at Wallops Island

McAuliffe wants risks shared for future rocket launches at Wallops Island

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe is seeking federal help for repairs to a state-owned rocket launch pad on Wallops Island and possibly a new deal with the commercial space flight company responsible for the aborted launch of a space station supply mission there last month.

McAuliffe has asked the state’s two U.S. senators, Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, to look for budget help in Congress in paying for repairs estimated at $13 million to $20 million to the nearly $150 million launch pad financed largely by state bonds.

The governor also has directed his staff to find ways to ensure that its partners, Orbital Sciences Corp. and NASA, share the financial risk to the state from future launches of medium-sized rockets at the state spaceport on the Eastern Shore. Both the state and Orbital are indemnified from responsibility for damage to the other party’s assets at the spaceport under a memorandum of understanding first signed in 2008.

“We’re not going to have a repeat of this in the future,” said Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr., who is a board member of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which owns the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island.

Layne confirmed Tuesday that the McAuliffe administration may seek to renegotiate the memorandum of understanding and launch services agreement with Orbital that the state revised substantially in 2012 under the administration of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“If it takes a renegotiation or a different MOU, then the answer is yes,” he said.

Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said the company is “certainly in dialogue” with the state and NASA about repairs to the launch facility and financial risk to the state, which self-insures the launch pad through the authority.

“We’ll work through this issue together,” Beneski said Tuesday. “I don’t know exactly how it will come out.”

Orbital was carrying out a $200 million mission for NASA to resupply the International Space Station when its Antares rocket failed and exploded shortly after liftoff Oct. 28.

The company said earlier this month that it believes the failure was caused by a turbo pump in one of the rocket’s reconditioned Soviet engines, which it plans to stop using for space launches.

Layne said the explosion did not damage the launch pad superstructure or its fuel tanks, but caused up to $20 million in damage to support systems, such as piping and lightning protection.

Beneski said it’s too soon for a precise damage estimate, but added, “that seems to be in the ballpark.”

Warner and Kaine, both Democrats, issued a joint statement Tuesday that pledged to work with “colleagues from both parties, both chambers ... to see if there may be federal resources available to help rebound from this setback.”

“The Wallops facility is a key regional asset, and it will continue to have an important role in NASA’s shift to private sector launch-partners,” they said.

Leaders on the General Assembly money committees say they also support continued commercial flight at Wallops, but want protection for the state from the full liability of damage to the spaceport launch pad that Virginia contributed about $100 million to build.

“I’m very supportive of efforts at Wallops Island, but it’s got to make sense for Virginia at the end of the day,” said House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who favors renegotiating the memorandum of understanding to “have more shared responsibility going forward.”

Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee on economic development and a member of its transportation panel, said Tuesday that he is “still optimistic about Wallops Island” and its potential to launch important scientific missions to space.

However, Watkins added, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to go in and renegotiate that agreement. No one expected this to happen, but it did.”

Orbital expects to resume space flights at Wallops in 2016. In the meantime, it is looking for other private facilities to launch its Cygnus spacecraft next year to resupply the space station under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA.

“We don’t really have a choice right now,” Beneski said. “We’re trying to be good partners with NASA and keep the supply line to the station.”

Layne said the state would be due compensation under the agreement if Orbital were to launch from facilities other than Wallops.

“We have let them know what our expectations are,” he said.

But Layne said the McAuliffe administration said it is not backing off its support of the commercial space flight initiative, for which it provides a subsidy of $16 million a year.

“This is not a matter of us not wanting to continue operating,” he said. “It’s a matter of making sure our assets are protected.”

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