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Spaceports Are Money Pits #1: Wallops/MARS

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the rocket industry. This post is the first of four detailing the true costs of landing the promised, but rarely realized, jobs and economic benefits promised by spaceports promoters.

I apologize for the length of each post, but the information provided is factual and extensively sourced.

Spaceports are Money Pits.

Wallops Facts

The spaceport commonly referred to as “Wallops” is actually two facilities. The major component is Wallops Flight Facility (“WFF”). This federal facility was opened in 1945 and is operated by the Goddard Space Flight Facility near Washington, DC. WFF includes an extensively instrumented range to support launches of more than a dozen types of sounding rockets; small expendable suborbital and orbital rockets; high-altitude balloon flights carrying scientific instruments for atmospheric and astronomical research; and, using its Research Airport, flight tests of aeronautical research aircraft, including unmanned aerial vehicles. WFF also supports launches for NOAA.

The commercial spaceport called Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (“MARS”) is owned by the State of Virginia which has invested over $150 million and is operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Authority. MARS occupies land leased from NASA at WFF and shares range facilities. A total of only 16 launches have taken place from MARS’ two launch pads since 2006. Two launches resulted in explosions less than 30 seconds after ignition. The first veered off-course:

“Explosive charges on the nose of the rocket were detonated by NASA about 27 seconds after the 5:10 a.m. launch. The agency said most of the wreckage probably fell into the Atlantic Ocean, although a resident of Modest Town reported debris starting a fire on Assawoman Island. [Writer’s Note: For Spaceport Camden, this would be equivalent to about halfway between the launch pad and Kings Bay Sub Base.]

“Most of the rocket's solid-fuel should have burned up or been neutralized by saltwater, officials said, but debris could be hazardous and should not be touched” (Off-Course NASA Rocket Destroyed).

It cost Virginia taxpayers more than $20 million to repair damage when a second rocket exploded in 2014 due to engine failure over the launch pad (see more below).

  • The US Census reports Accomack County’s average family income is lower than Camden’s by about $11,000

  • Accomack’s poverty rate is about 5 points higher than Camden's despite the "high" NASA salaries.

  • Total retail sales in Accomack equal only 58% of Camden’s.

MARS has been very expensive for Virginia taxpayers to build and own. The capital investment in MARS exceeds $150 million which that does not include the value of the shared NASA facilities. Occasionally launching rockets under a NASA contract with Orbital/ATK to the International Space Station generates the primary income.

MARS lost $18,000,000 In both 2017 and 2018. MARS lost $17,000,000 in 2016 and $14,000,000 in 2015. Here’s a clip from the Virginia Space Authority 2018 Audit:

Virginia state appropriations to MARS totaled $35,875,416 in FY2018:

Even if MARS directly supported 100 jobs, which it does not, how could each job be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual subsidies?

Source: Virginia Space Authority Annual Audit

“Wallops Research Park Gets First Tenant In 'Big Win For Accomack'”

“Talk of developing a research park in Accomack County, near NASA Wallops Flight Facility, started as far back as the late 1990s, with serious planning starting in 2006”

As you’ll see below, spaceports are not where rocket and satellite manufacturing companies want to locate their research, development and manufacturing facilities or jobs. Spaceports are for launching rockets and distance doesn’t seem to matter.

About Those !JOBS!

It’s suggested that Wallops supports about 1,700 jobs throughout Virginia. The majority of those are related to NASA programs however not all of them are in Accomack County. Public records do not disclose the number of staff at MARS. The rarity of launches suggests that it is not many.

[2018] “While two launch sites are soon to be in the mix for Rocket Lab, the locations at which specific Electron components are built will not change regardless from where a launch is intended to take place.

“All Electron engines and avionics will continue to be produced at the company’s Huntington Beach, California, facility. And all propellant tanks and stage builds will occur at Rocket Lab’s newly-unveiled facility in Auckland, New Zealand.”

“It will create 30 jobs for the local region.”

Camden County, like Accomack, would likely have out-of-county and out-of-state commuter workers. Worchester County, Maryland is 10 miles closer to MARS Spaceport than Nassau County, Florida would be to Spaceport Camden. About 25% of civilian employees of Kings Bay commute from outside of Camden. Workers mostly spend their paychecks near they live, not where they work.

Virginia Offers Secret Incentives

[2018] “Officials would not share specifically the incentives provided to Rocket Lab to bring the complex to Virginia, saying the exact amount was part of the proprietary agreement between government agencies and the company.

“Despite that, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said she received word Tuesday night that Va. Gov. Ralph Northam had signed a $5 million Transportation Partnership Opportunity Fund grant, which would support the partnership.

“Nash said there were economic incentives given but that it was important to consider the "in-kind expertise" from Rocket Lab in the form of project management from employees that don't have to relocate to Virginia.”

Spaceports LOVE to keep their deals secret. The justification for secrecy is due to competition between launch sites because of excess capacity in the industry. The Law of Supply and Demand rules for spaceports. It is virtually impossible to learn how much a rocket company receives in incentives or pays for launch services at Kennedy Space Center, MARS, Spaceport America, and Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex because those states have enacted special exemptions in their open records laws for spaceports allowing them to hide certain information.

Those seeking information from Camden County and the FAA about Spaceport Camden have met repeated roadblocks because they refuse to provide information under Georgia and federal Open Records laws.

Virginia's Spaceport Repaired, Ready For Space Business

[2015] “Nearly a year after a rocket explosion severely damaged the state-owned spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia officials announced that $15 million in major repairs are finally completed.

“The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority said the $150 million Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, or MARS, is now restored to flight readiness,

“No one was injured in the secondary explosion and fires when the booster landed, but the spaceport sustained significant damage. The rocket fell just east of the pad, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe called a lucky break. [Writer’s Note: An explosion “just east of the pad” at Spaceport Camden could include the Union Carbide Hazardous Landfill causing an untold environmental catastrophe.]

"Clearly if the rocket had landed on the pad and destroyed the pad," McAuliffe said in August, "that might have been the end of space travel here in Virginia."

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