U.S.-based Rocket Lab announced its first U.S. launch pad for the Electron rocket in a carefully orchestrated press event with NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The LC-2 site is the second for Rocket Lab, joining first launch site LC-1 in New Zealand. Rocket Lab wants to launch at least 12 times a year from Virginia, with first flight planned for the third quarter of 2019.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said the company plans to spend $20 million to build facilities at Wallops, including an integration facility with a launch control center and the pad infrastructure. The State of Virginia is contributing $5 million in economic development funds and there are additional economic incentives based upon various “proprietary” benchmarks established between the company and New Zealand. Rocket Labs will add 30 jobs and “We’re hiring,” said Beck. As launch frequency increases, the economic impact could be up to 100 jobs.
New-build facilities will include a large integration building including space to process multiple vehicles at once, clean rooms, and offices, along with a pad south of the current 0A site built for the Northrup Grumman Antares rocket. Rocket Lab Electron uses the same types of fuels as Antares, liquid oxygen and RP-1, so providing support from the existing infrastructure is relatively straightforward.
Virginia was selected over Florida due to a combination of technical and operational reasons. Most other launch vehicle operators at Cape Canaveral effectively require radio silence when conducting a mission, shutting down everyone else until the launch is completed. Rocket Lab uses an on-board autonomous flight termination system that doesn’t require direct radio links for operation, so it can be safely launched without worrying about everyone else is doing on the air. There’s also the issue of increased activity at the Cape by commercial operators, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin and the operational expense of paying the U.S. Air Force for use of its range facilities.
Beck described Virginia as “quiet” relative to the Cape, a fair assessment. Northrup Grumman is the major user of the Wallops facility, conducting two Antares missions per year for NASA space station supply plus an occasional Minotaur launch for the Air Force every couple of years. Current Antares operations typically take a couple of days between last cargo load, rollout to the pad and launch, but the tempo of operations is expected to speed up to around 24 hours under the new CRS-2 supply contract. Faster Antares operations mean more available time for Rocket Lab operations.
Rocket Lab’s LC-1 will remain the company’s “high volume, high frequency pad,” said Beck, with the New Zealand location licensed to launch every 72 hours with a potential flight rate of up to 120 launches per year. LC-2 at Wallops is the company’s “boutique pad” to service customers that don’t want to travel down to New Zealand and/or need to remain in the U.S., both commercial and government with national security requirements.
But the company is not done yet. Beck said Rocket Labs is looking at building a LC-3 site in the equatorial region. Another location would give more options for customers and provide increased lift capability to the Electron.