Commercial spaceflight is the future. Now, it looks like Virginia is getting a stake in it.
On Wednesday, Rocket Lab, a California-based startup specializing in commercial space travel, announced it's setting up shop in Virginia. After much deliberation, the company says it has selected NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore as the official site of its first U.S. spaceport.
"Is this great or what?" Bill Wrobel, director of the Wallops Flight Facility, said during the announcement ceremony. "This is a real shot in the arm for the Eastern Shore."
The spaceport will be named Launch Complex 2, after the company's first location in New Zealand. Rocket Lab will invest $20 million to make Launch Complex 2 a competitive site for regular orbital launches into the immortal depths of space.
The facility will support monthly orbital space launches for both U.S. government and commercial missions.
Once built, Launch Complex 2 will enable Rocket Lab to launch over 130 missions each year across its two locations -- a startlingly high number in the industry, and one the company plans to increase even further.
The project is supported by a $5 million grant from the state's Transportation Partnership Opportunity Fund.
"We are honoured to be Rocket Lab’s selection for Launch Complex 2,” said Dale Nash, CEO and Executive Director of Virginia Space. “There is an incredible synergy between Virginia Space and Rocket Lab, and we are proud to support their missions launching from U.S. soil."
In addition to the new spaceport, Rocket Lab is working with Virginia Space to build a Launch Pad Assembly and Integration Facility at nearby Wallops Research Park. The Assembly and Integration Facility will include a control room, designated customer facilities, and accommodations for up to four Electron rockets.
Electron rockets are lightweight, low-cost rockets designed to launch small satellites (CubeSats) into orbital space. These rockets are designed to make space travel more efficient for Rocket Lab's customers, which range from government agencies, like NASA, to newer, exploratory companies, like Moon Express, Spire, and Planet. These companies do everything from providing internet access to monitor deforestation, mapping the earth, and tracking the weather.
Invented by Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, these rockets and similar technologies revolutionize access to space travel. For one thing, they're much cheaper. Electron flights are advertised at $4.9 million, compared to NASA launches' $100 million price tag or SpaceX's $60 million.
The rockets themselves are tiny -- just 55 feet tall, dwarfing in comparison to rockets like SpaceX's Falcon 9. But that's part of what makes them so affordable. The rockets, designed for single use, are built with 3-D printed engines, which the company hopes will help make production faster and more affordable.
This accessibility is a vital part of Rocket Lab's company mission. CEO Peter Beck said this aspect of the company fits in perfectly with the new spaceport in Virginia.
“Launching from a second pad builds on Rocket Lab’s ability to offer... flexibility," Beck said in a statement. "Accessing space should be simple, seamless, and tailored to our customers’ missions -- from idea to orbit.”
The new spaceport is set to make its debut in 2019. Construction on Launch Complex 2 will begin in December, with an expected completion date of mid-summer to late fall next year.