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April 12, 2011

Virginia Accumulates Space Credentials

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Cape Canaveral, Houston, Vandenberg, Huntsville all come to mind when it comes to rattling off America's places where spaceflight begins. But Virginia? Believe it or not, the state may have to issue a variant of its tourism logo which reads, "Virginia is for Space Lovers."

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Our story begins in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, where one secretive three letter agency lives without fanfare in Chantilly.   The National Reconnaissance Office – NRO – celebrates "50 years of vigilance from above" this year and oversees all satellite and overflight reconnaissance projects "whether overt or covert," according to its website.  

Officially established back in September 1961 as a part of the Department of Defense, the agency was taken public in September 1992. As the government's owner of "overhead reconnaissance systems" –spy satellites, if you prefer – the NRO operates a fleet of imaging, signals collection, and radar satellites that scan the world's trouble spots. In more recent years, NRO has played a key role in humanitarian relief and environmental protection, assessing the impact of natural disasters and providing supporting data to track oil spills.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that upstart rocket manufacturer SpaceX (News - Alert) recently opened up an office in Chantilly to support government and commercial customers, followed by its announcement of the Falcon Heavy rocket aimed at putting big satellites – like those operated by NRO – into orbit.  While SpaceX hasn't announced a government customer for Falcon Heavy yet, odds are that if it does, the NRO will be among the first buyers.

Another Northern Virginia customer SpaceX will work with out of Chantilly is McLean, Va.-based Iridium (News - Alert). SpaceX has a $492 million contract to provide launch services for putting up the Iridium NEXT constellation into orbit between 2015 and 2017. Multiple Iridium NEXT satellites will be put into orbit on Falcon 9 launches.

Around the corner from SpaceX is Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation. Orbital's headquarters is in Dulles, VA and the two companies have an interesting "coopertition" style relationship. The satellite manufacturing side of Orbital don't mind working with the Falcon 9 rocket people, but Orbital and SpaceX are the two winners for International Space Station (ISS) resupply. With SpaceX getting the larger of the two NASA ISS resupply contracts, Orbital has its work cut out for it to step up to the plate and demonstrate its Taurus II/Cygnus rocket and spacecraft combination later this year.

Our story ends by taking a four hour car ride out of Northern Virginia into Maryland, crossing the Bay Bridge (News - Alert) and traveling across the Eastern shore, finally heading south of Salisbury for about an hour, crossing back into Virginia and arriving at Wallops Island, launch site for Orbital's Taurus II/Cygnus combination.

Wallops Island started out as a NASA research facility run by Goddard Space Flight Center, hosting aeronautic research and sounding rockets. In 1998, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority leased land from NASA and built the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (yes, MARS), a commercial space launch facility. Since 2006, four launches have been conducted out of MARS; three of them Orbital Minotaur I rockets.   Orbital will conduct its ISS resupply launches of Taurus II from Wallops Island, with a demonstration flight of Taurus II expected this fall.


Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee