Despite rocket explosion, Wallops Island seen as force for economic growth

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As the countdown to the ill-fated Wallops Island rocket launch began Tuesday evening, Todd Burbage directed his gaze skyward into the sunset.

"I heard a boom and saw a plume of smoke," said Burbage, a local real estate developer watching from a dock in West Ocean City. "It was a sad moment."


Almost as soon as the Antares rocket — loaded with cargo bound for the International Space Station — exploded in midair above the launchpad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, analysts and space observers began speculating on the implications of the failed launch. They focused not only on Orbital Sciences Corp., the contractor responsible for the launch, but on Wallops — specifically whether the failure would throw into question Orbital's $1.9 billion contract to launch space station payloads from the facility just south of the Maryland state line.

Many in Maryland and Virginia are watching closely. State and local economic development officials hope the facility, which hosts a broad range of scientific activities, can continue to attract commercial partners to corner emerging markets, including the unmanned aircraft industry. Businessmen such as Burbage are investing in communities near Wallops, which they see as a key driver of jobs and tourism. And officials at NASA and Orbital say they are looking forward to a continued partnership utilizing Wallops' unique capabilities for space missions.


Several space industry analysts described the incident as a setback but predicted it would not have a lasting impact on Wallops or the region's economy. The extent to which it slows momentum at the facility will depend largely on what investigators determine to be the cause of the failure, experts said.

"There may be short-term difficulty, depending on what they discover," said Roger Handberg, a University of Central Florida political scientist who studies space policy. "If it's something fixable, they will probably be OK. If it's something more major, then they may have an issue."

On the Delmarva Peninsula, the failure was portrayed as more of a hiccup — part of doing business in a dynamic industry that, despite being decades old, is still about pushing boundaries.

"I see this as a natural part of growing a business. You're always going to have anomalies, and they have done exactly what they said they were going to do. They contained it, they've assessed it and they're moving forward," said Peter Bale, chair of the Eastern Shore Defense Alliance, a business group of about 250 members keen on ensuring the economic success of Wallops and the broader region.

Bale, an consultant on unmanned aircraft who watched Tuesday's launch from a dock near his home on Chincoteague Island, said, "Orbital is committed, NASA is committed, we're committed to growth here on the shore."

According to recent NASA estimates, the Wallops facility has a nearly $830 million economic impact on the region, directly and indirectly supporting nearly 5,900 jobs. The facility directly supports nearly 1,700 employees, contractors and tenant personnel, about half of whom live in Maryland.

The Wallops explosion was not the only recent setback for private companies involved in the space industry.

On Friday, a suborbital passenger spaceship being developed by Virgin Galactic crashed during a test flight over California's Mojave Desert, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot, who ejected, according to local officials. The spaceship is designed to give paying customers a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth against the blackness of space.


The Antares rocket exploded in midair above the Wallops launchpad for reasons unknown, crashing back to Virginia soil nine miles south of the Maryland line and about 40 miles southeast of Salisbury. No one was injured, but the rocket's payload was destroyed and the launchpad was damaged. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital promised an intensive investigation.

The last major failure at Wallops occurred about 20 years ago, and the facility has had a good record, thanks to meticulous safety planning, said Bruce Underwood, its deputy director. Still, as the Orbital explosion shows, launching rockets into space is no easy task, he said.

"Sometimes people will forget that the rocketry business is a very unforgiving business," he said. "It's not like an automobile that you pull over when something goes wrong. When something fails, your mission is over."

What isn't over, Underwood and others said, is Wallops' larger mission and potential growth into promising new fields of science, aviation and technology.

For nearly 70 years, Wallops has served as a base of operations for missions around the world. Even as the Antares launch was getting underway, NASA programs based out of Wallops were testing suborbital rockets in Norway, preparing balloon testing missions in Antarctica and conducting earth science research in Alaska.

"Those are kind of our bread-and-butter programs that we have been responsible for for decades," Underwood said. "Despite what happened on Tuesday, the other portions of our mission are marching along."


In addition, Wallops has a range of tenants, including the U.S. Navy Surface Combat Systems Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Wallops Command and Data Acquisition Station. A new runway for unmanned aircraft is in the works, as commercial opportunities expand in the industry and a new collaboration among Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey to test new unmanned capabilities for the Federal Aviation Administration gathers steam.

Underwood said Wallops is in talks with other commercial companies that could benefit from its capabilities.

"We're really not a one-trick pony. We're a really diverse organization," he said.

Ursula Powidzki, assistant secretary for business and enterprise development at the Maryland Department of Economic Development, said a study her office released last year found that additional contracts with commercial ventures at Wallops could be a boon to the region.

Maryland officials see opportunities for growth in a number of areas, from expanded unmanned aircraft operations to small commercial satellite launches, she said, and Maryland and Virginia are communicating more than ever on how to promote Wallops to private business. Officials are exploring the options and related costs, she said.

How the Orbital accident will play into Wallops' ambitions — local optimism aside — remains unclear.


But even if Orbital is forced to replace its 1960s-era, Russian-built AJ-26 engines — which many believe to be a potential culprit in the failed launch — it wouldn't necessarily slow growth at Wallops. The company had already planned to retire the engine over the next two years, and ramping up the development of a replacement could result in more activity at Wallops, not less.

The biggest concern for Orbital now might be its reputation, an issue that could be resolved by future successful launches.

Chris Quilty, a defense analyst at Raymond James, noted in a recent report that a lengthy accident investigation could force NASA to shift some space station supply work to California-based competitor SpaceX, which already has a $1.6 billion contract for deliveries.

"Management expects to determine the cause of the failure in a matter of days, not weeks, but the root cause analysis and corrective actions will take much longer," Quilty wrote in the report.

Orbital told shareholders in a conference call last week that it plans to push back its next launch, originally scheduled for April, by at least three months.

Wallops is the only site certified to launch the Antares rocket. Preliminary reports suggest that damage to the Wallops facility was minimal, but the assessment continues.


The incident met with muted response in Washington, despite past Capitol Hill debates over the privatization of space flight. Aides to officials from both political parties said the failed launch probably would not immediately reopen that debate, which has been focused more on future manned space missions than on unmanned cargo runs.

The accident took place a week before the midterm elections, which means lawmakers were back in their home states campaigning and not immediately able to schedule hearings on the matter.

Some local lawmakers, meanwhile, did not expect the failed launch to have much political or economic fallout. That's partly because both Orbital and Wallops have diversified their missions beyond resupplying the space station.

"Obviously, this is a terrific setback to have to deal with," said Del. Michael A. McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican. But "the future looks really good."

McDermott noted the Navy's increased presence at the nearby Surface Combat Systems Center, the expanded role the area will play in developing commercial drones and what he described as a growing effort to promote space tourism around Ocean City.

"It's a good opportunity for us to cash in on the future," McDermott said. "Everybody's kind of looking forward to that 'next thing.' Where are the technology jobs that everyone is talking about? I think [Wallops] is going to be a big help for kids down here that are looking for those types of jobs."


Just hours before the explosion, Bale and Burbage were schmoozing with a hundred or so other business executives, legislators and aerospace boosters at the Eastern Shore Defense Alliance's quarterly meeting, where excitement about the launch was palpable.

The meeting was held at Chincoteague's newest seafood restaurant, The Jackspot, which is a three-minute walk from the island's new 92-unit Fairfield Inn & Suites — both developed by Burbage and driven by his bullish outlook for Wallops' regional impact.

"That's in particular why we've chosen to invest our dollars in the Chincoteague region," he said. "And if the right deal came up tomorrow, we would certainly invest, no questions asked, whether it be the hiccup with Orbital or no hiccup with Orbital."

Bale said he felt like he was "watching CNN" as debris rained down after the explosion and a huge fire ignited, glowing orange around the beachfront launchpad. But as the emergency response unfolded, he was calm, thinking back to the enthusiasm shared by so many at the meeting.

"I see this as nothing more than a new business model that we're moving through," he said. "We're on the right track toward a better, brighter future."