Va. Commercial Space Industry Poised for Takeoff

Rick Baldwin has been working toward next month's rocket launch for 10 years but may spend the liftoff in a windowless bunker.
Rick Baldwin has been working toward next month's rocket launch for 10 years but may spend the liftoff in a windowless bunker. (Ricky Carioti - Twp)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. -- On the morning of the launch, range safety officer Mike Patterson will have his thumbs on two switches: left for "arm," right for "destruct." He hopes he won't have to flip them, but he has in the past, and he will if things go bad.

Test director Jay Brown will be in the control room watching the stop-and-go light tree, hoping it stays green. And Rick Baldwin, who helped build the rocket's 12-story service gantry with parts from Home Depot, should be in the concrete blockhouse just up the beach from the pad.

If all goes as hoped, at about 7 a.m. Dec. 11, a new day in the local aerospace industry will begin when the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport launches a 69-foot, green and white Minotaur I rocket carrying satellites for the Air Force and NASA.

It will be the culmination of a decade-long effort to start a regional, state-backed space launch industry and one that its creators believe could someday send tourists from the shores of Virginia to outer space.

Weather permitting, the launch should be visible from Washington on the eastern horizon, experts say.

If it comes off, it will be a coup for the spaceport, often called by its acronym, MARS. The low-cost, cooperative enterprise of Virginia and Maryland has a staff of four and is run out of a tiny building that once was a gas station.

And if the launch, from pad 0-B, is fully successful, it will be the first time in more than 20 years that a payload has been placed in orbit from this historic NASA site just south of Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

During the last attempt in 1995, which was part of a different commercial venture, the rocket malfunctioned after launch and blew up.

The inaugural spaceport flight is designed to orbit the Air Force's TacSat-2, a tactical observation satellite, and NASA's GeneSat-1, a science satellite. The spaceport hopes they will be the first of many.

But the project is a gamble. Dreams of a lucrative space launch industry have fizzled in the past. And the future, while intriguing, is uncertain.

"It's funny," said Baldwin, 46, a physicist and the spaceport's manager. "The question is, after we launch this first one, will they be coming to us, or not? I have no idea. I have no idea what to expect the day after this launch."

At NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, the spaceport owns the two pads and infrastructure at what is called Launch Complex Zero. It leases the land from NASA, which will provide technical launch support.

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