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Florida Fusses Over NASA Wallops Upgrades to Support 'Manned Spaceflight'

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

September 26, 2011

Florida Fusses Over NASA Wallops Upgrades to Support 'Manned Spaceflight'

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Florida space leaders are getting fussy about NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, specifically environmental impact documents saying the facility wants to support “manned spaceflight” as it starts upgrading its aging infrastructure.    But there's a key word missing from the discussion of Wallops plans and it is “suborbital.”

The Economic Development Commission (EDC) of Florida's Space Coast sent a letter dated August 31, 2011 to the manager in charge of the Wallops preliminary environmental impact statement process, protesting that upgrades to the NASA Eastern Shore facility “constituting a direct threat to the economic well being of the people of the Space Coast, in particular, and to the fiscal health of the U.S. population, in general.”

Signed by EDC President and CEO Lynda Weatherman, the letter goes on to cite the “sense of betrayal” the Florida workforce would have in that “their tax dollars might be used in establishing a competing orbital human spaceflight launch capability in another state when they have so well and ably done the job here in Florida.” EDC wants specific language incorporated within the environmental impact statement to prohibit the use of federal funds to build infrastructure to support orbital human spaceflight.

By mid-September, Mark Matthews of the Orlando Sentinel got a hold of a copy and posted a blog entry entitled “Florida raises concern over Wallops expansion.”

The key here is the definition of “manned spaceflight.” Florida wants to make sure it retains its preeminence in orbital manned spaceflight operations, while from all indications Wallops is more interested in entertaining suborbital operations -- a state of affairs Florida can live with.

“ The EDC, and Space Florida, do not have any objection to Wallops developing a full range of capabilities to support anything other than NASA astronauts to LEO,” EDC spokesperson Patrick O'Neill said in email. “The agency has existing infrastructure to meet that need and it is presently grossly under-utilized. Our contention is that we do not believe NASA has enough money to be affording duplicative and redundant infrastructure.”

Wallops has only expressed an interest in suborbital manned operations -- but hasn't underlined the “suborbital” part. The facility has had some very preliminary discussions with suborbital firms, according to one NASA exec and Virgin Galactic. Manned suborbital operations with systems such as Virgin's SpaceShipTwo and XCOR's Lynx would take advantage of Wallops 8,000 foot runway, extensive range facilities, and controlled airspace. 

Given the flexibility and relative mobility of winged suborbital systems, an operator might not even need a permanent presence at Wallops. Virgin or XCOR could conduct a temporary deployment, flying in and staying for a couple of weeks to conduct operations -- presumably suborbital experiments -- and then depart.

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 Jennifer Russell

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