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Alaska's spaceport turns to tiny sats after missile defense

Micro-satellites, $100 million medium-lift launch capacity on horizon near Kodiak

Posted: February 5, 2012 - 1:12am

After a couple lackluster years, when a single launch was good news, new ways of using existing technology could revive the nation’s only high latitude, full-service spaceport.

Gov. Sean Parnell allocated $8 million in his proposed FY 2013 operating budget for basic operations and maintenance of the Kodiak Launch Complex, located 44 miles outside of the city of Kodiak. Alaska Aerospace testified in House Military and Veterans Affairs finance sub-committee on Feb. 3 to convince legislators to keep it there.

Craig Campbell President and CEO of Alaska Aerospace Corp. said his company requested $8 million last year, but received only half that.

“We had too much money on hand,” Campbell said.

This year, the state will fund Kodiak’s operation through the operating budget, as opposed to the capital budget as in years past, Campbell said.

Campbell said the spaceport started with a focus on commercial space launches.

“It turned out to be government mostly,” Campbell said. Up until recently military missile defense testing funded 100 percent of the Kodiak space program.

The military eventually moved its missile defense program to meet new test requirements.

With big government largess a thing of the past, how will Campbell alter course at the Kodiak spaceport to make it commercially viable?

“And not just a state sponsored launch complex,” Campbell said. He said the state will need to work with the feds to guarantee launch dates to make good on the state’s investment. The state shouldn’t be expected to maintain a spaceport for the federal government to use at its whim.

Campbell said he understood that legislators and their constituents would want some assurance that this $8 million is a good investment for the state of Alaska.

First off, the U.S. is dependent on space. Telecommunications, radio, global positioning satellites, military defense and research make up a handful of endeavors at least partially reliant on access to the ‘high ground’ of space. Add to that the less necessary, yet vitally attractive industry of human space exploration and tourism.

This growing space market makes an Alaska spaceport even more attractive when it is considered that Kodiak is one of only two West Coast launch facilities capable of launching satellites into polar orbit, Vandenberg Airforce Base is the other. Specifically, circular and highly elliptical Molniya and Tundra orbits, according to Alaska Aerospace Corporation’s website. The only way to for a satellite’s orbit to cross the northern and southern polar regions and the only way to have 100 percent global coverage is to launch satellites from the West Coast, Campbell said. Vandenberg plans to focus on heavy-lift rockets, space shuttle size, leaving Kodiak open to vie for the light and medium lift market, he said.

There are new advances in satellite technology and new ways of creating partnerships between universities, private business, government and the military on “ride share” programs. Those programs help companies and agencies share the launch cost, lowering the cost of sending objects into space.

Lockheed Martin announced in 2010 that it would re-release its Athena family of small rockets. Kodiak currently has capacity to launch rockets the size of Athena. To find customers to buy payload space on their redesigned rockets, Lockheed Martin turned to the growing industry of micro- and nano-satellites (bit.ly/yNPutg). The defense corporation held a “ride-share” conference for customers wanting to reserve a spot among other small satellites and distribute the cost. Campbell said Lockheed Martin has nearly filled an Athena launch for 2013 and another 2014.

“We have a yearly commitment to a Kodiak launch,” Campbell said. “It’s really good for us, it doesn’t just rely on federal government.”

The Kodiak launch facility is tailor made for the Athena rocket, which stands about 90 feet tall, but is currently not capable of hosting boosters of the 200-foot-tall, medium-lift variety.

Campbell said Kodiak is not looking to grow into the heavy-lift market, but if Alaska’s spaceport can find customers for a medium-lift launch it will seek funding to build the capacity to handle rockets of well over 200 feet. Building this capacity could cost around $100 million.

“It’s a future discussion,” Campbell said. “We’re not ready because we do not yet have a customer.”

However, he said, “We’re very optimistic we can get there,”

For more information visit www.akaerospace.com.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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