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.
The spaceport is one of six in the United States licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. They are part of a fledgling space business that is eyeing, among other things, the future of space tourism. California has two licensed facilities; the others are in Florida, Alaska and Oklahoma.
A seventh license is in preparation for a site in New Mexico.
Billie Reed, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority and the spaceport's director, said: "The biggest thing that's coming around the corner, that's been a shot in the arm for the industry, is this whole idea of space tourism. A lot of people are, maybe, skeptical, but a lot of people are going at it big time."
He said MARS would love to host a tourist mission.
"Absolutely!" he said. "If you print anything, I would really like you to print that: Hey, guys, we can do it!"
The Wallops Island facility, about 150 miles southeast of Washington, is perfect for a launch to orbit, he said, and perfect for a trip to the international space station -- the destination of the first four space tourists. It would also be an ideal place, he said, for rapid suborbital trips across the world.
Such journeys could take place atop traditional rockets or aboard new manned rocket planes such as SpaceShipOne, which first flew to the edge of space two years ago.
There's no denying that private space travel is pricey.
Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures, the Vienna firm that booked the first tourist flights, said the current rate is $25 million for a trip on a Russian space capsule to the space station. A two-week around-the-moon trip, planned for the future, will run $100 million. There will soon be cheaper, suborbital flights: $100,000 for about five minutes in space, he said.
But there are concerns about the future of space tourism. "How large is that market?" asked Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's Secretary of Business and Economic Development and the state's point person on the spaceport. "I really don't want to put too many economic eggs in that basket."
For now, MARS wants to offer fast, cheap, unmanned launch service for commercial and, especially, government customers. With the space shuttle scheduled for retirement in about three years, Reed said MARS could handle such things as basic resupply missions to the space station.
The spaceport has three more launches scheduled within the next year -- two for the government, one a combined government-commercial payload, Baldwin said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force satellite and the Minotaur's lower two stages -- former Minuteman ballistic missile engines -- arrived at Wallops Island last week. The upper stages -- two Orbital Sciences Pegasus motors -- and the NASA satellite arrived earlier.
The launch window is between 7 and 10 a.m. Dec. 11 through Dec. 20. Baldwin said the flight to orbit will take 10 minutes. "After 10 years of work, from the time they light it, 10 minutes later, it's done," he said. "In seven minutes it's over Africa and on its way."
NASA said a viewing area on Assateague Island, Va., just north of here, will open at 6 a.m. daily for the launch attempts.
On the morning of the launch, Brown, the NASA test director, will be at his console on a raised platform in the big control room that is filled with computers and banks of video screens.
In the glass-doored range safety room next door, Patterson, the NASA safety officer, will sit poised at the abort switches. "I'm the guy on the buttons," he said. "If it doesn't go the right way, we have the authority to blow up the rocket."
He has done so before, to mixed reviews from colleagues. Sometimes the need "is obvious, and they say, 'Good job,' " he said. "Sometimes they go, 'Couldn't you give it another second?' " His answer: "No."
It takes pressing both buttons ("arm" prepares the explosives to be activated, and "destruct" finishes the job) because "you don't want to accidentally push a wrong button," he said. It's a decision he hopes he won't have to make. "The safest mission is a successful mission," he said.
One day this month, Baldwin, the spaceport manager, bustled through some last-minute details in his cluttered office next to the Wallops credit union.
The walls were decorated with, among other things, a picture of Albert Einstein, a pink Styrofoam rocket and a large writing board bearing the legend: "Truth and technology will triumph over bull . . . and bureaucracy."
"This has not been easy," Baldwin said. There were many obstacles and naysayers, and there still are.
For the launch, he and a few others are assigned to the launch control point, in the blockhouse near the pad. "It's designed to take a direct hit if the vehicle were to go errant," he said. But the blockhouse has no windows, and Baldwin is seeking a better vantage point.
He said the mission requires a few people stationed outside during launch to act as spotters and report whether the rocket is actually on course.
After 10 years of work to bring MARS to life, Baldwin would rather not attend the first launch in a bunker. So he is volunteering for spotter duty, he said, "so we can actually see this thing go."