The Wallops Island launch pad that was damaged when a cargo rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded shortly after liftoff in October will take about a year to repair, according to the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Recovery from the failed rocket launch also will require soil and water remediation at the launch site, which is part of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on the Virginia coast, about 9 miles south of the Maryland line, officials at the authority said this week.
The facility is part of the larger NASA Wallops Flight Facility, an increasingly important economic anchor for the lower Eastern Shore. A major part of the facility's growth in recent years has come from the presence of Orbital Sciences Corp., the company that owned the rocket that exploded. The firm holds an ongoing government contract to supply the space station.
The explosion of Orbital's unmanned Antares rocket threw that contract and its benefits to the local community into question, but the company said last month it will honor its contractual obligation to deliver additional cargo to the station by 2016 — albeit with an upgraded propulsion system.
Orbital said it is making "good progress" in determining the cause of the explosion, and that preliminary information points to a failure in one of the rocket's two main engines. It already was planning to phase out the Antares program's propulsion system, but is now doing so ahead of schedule.
Barron Beneski, an Orbital spokesman, said this week the Virginia authority's yearlong timeline for spaceport repairs was "in line" with the company's plans, but otherwise declined to comment.
In addition to commenting on launch pad repairs, the Virginia authority said it is continuing to work with NASA and Orbital on environmental remediation that includes "pumping water from the impact crater and sampling."
Surface water samples have indicated "no impact to back bays and tributaries," the authority said, but about 6 inches of soil around the launch site will need to be treated for potential contamination. That work was scheduled to begin this week.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Lane said in a statement that the state wants to "put a sustainable plan in place" for a long-term partnership with Orbital and NASA, but will be looking to both for help funding the launch pad repairs — costs for which have not been determined.
Jeremy Eggers, a NASA spokesman at Wallops, said the agency is looking forward to Orbital flights resuming once the launch pad is fixed, but the facility's "operations tempo remains high." It is supporting five suborbital rocket launches scheduled from the agency's Alaska range in January, three balloon launches planned in Antarctica and several other airborne science missions.