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Kodiak spaceport could receive $125 million upgrade

Posted: March 2, 2012 - 7:54pm  |  Updated: March 4, 2012 - 12:08am

Like many good space adventures, it is when all hope is lost that the hero saves the day. Lockheed Martin may be the Kodiak spaceport’s rocket-propelled savior.

On Friday, Lockheed Martin announced it has signed a contract with Kodiak Launch to be the aerospace engineering firm’s medium lift facility on the west coast.

Without a steady customer with large pockets, Kodiak’s future was uncertain. As originally reported on KMXL (bit.ly/yDbTER) House Majority Leader Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, said on Monday, that the spaceport in his home district would begin talks of closing if a proposed $8 million appropriation is not kept in the fiscal year 2013 budget. Gavel to Gavel archives (bit.ly/y5jTV7) show that Rep. Austerman, who is a non-voting member of the Aerospace Corporation said “if we can’t get something together after this year, probably the fall meeting of the corporation we looking at how we can close it down or sell it off,” Austerman said.

“Space in particular in this nation is uncertain,” said Dale Nash, CEO for Alaska Aerospace Corp.

The U.S., Nash said, is in danger of losing its distinction as the world’s No. 1 spacefaring nation. Currently the only manned missions to the International Space Station are launched in Soyuz spacecraft from Russia. Kodiak can be part of the solution to keep the U.S. on top, Nash said.

To date the state has invested $30 million in the Kodiak spaceport. To date it has generated $300 million in economic activity, half through capital improvements and half via launch revenues, Nash said. It’s an order of magnitude below the investment by other orbital states, he said.

“That is pretty good return on what the state has put in on investment,” Nash said.

And the returns are not just financial, he said. There is the awe inherent in space flight.

“I am enamored by space,” Nash said. “It is living the dream working in the space industry.”

Nash worked on NASA’s space shuttle program for 14 years. He saw the benefits of space industry on states and local communities.

“We have that opportunity in Alaska,” Nash said. “We really hope to go back and secure a lot of launches we’ve lost to other countries.”

But he cautioned it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s a competitive market,” Nash said. “It takes the state competing as Alaska Incorporated. You’ve got to compete as an entire state.”

Nash gave credit to Gov. Sean Parnell for helping make Alaska competitive.

Lockheed Martin has proposed a new medium-lift rocket called the Athena III. The rocket can launch 6 1/2 tons into orbit, a fourfold increase over the small-lift rockets Kodiak currently launches.

Craig Campbell, president and chief operating officer of Alaska Aerospace Corp. testified to the Senate in February the Kodiak Launch Complex would pursue two types of novel launch customers to try to make the spaceport profitable after the company’s only paying customer, the U.S. military, recently moved its missile defense testing program to meet new demands. The first new avenue would focus on customers buying space for multiple small satellites under the cowling of the type of small rockets Kodiak can currently handle, like the Athena II rocket. The second, and more ambitious proposal was to court the West Coast medium-lift market, then upgrade the launch complex when it procured a customer.

Alaska Aerospace Corporation, Kodiak Launch owners, and Lockheed Martin are working together to scale up the Kodiak complex.

To that end, Parnell has added $25 million to his FY13 budget for the spaceport and Lockheed Martin is pursuing $100 million in its own financing.

“Construction of this additional launch pad will not only bring business to Alaska, but it will also create high-paying jobs in the future,” Parnell said.

Lockheed Martin must also pull its Athena III program out of mothballs and find customers to buy its valuable missions.

Al Simpson, the director of the Athena project, said the economic impact of the infrastructure project doesn’t stop with the completion of the new launch pad. And the economic benefits won’t be limited to the island of Kodiak.

“From Lockheed’s perspective, the full potential of building the Athena III program, is that it opens up opportunity to talk to Alaska businesses,” Simpson said. Alaskan businesses and engineers could build flight hardware and participate in the development of the Athena III.

“We want to engage businesses in the State of Alaska to be part of the supply chain,” Simpson said.

The complex and the businesses that feed it need workers with high tech skills and able to work with high tech materials.

“We want to find ways of partnering with the University of Alaska,” Simpsons said.

“It would allow engineers that graduate from Alaska to work in Alaska in the aerospace field,” Simpson said.

And some Alaskans already have the skills they need, Simpson said. Aircraft skills translate to the rocket business, he said.

Going forward, Simpson said cooperation is key to success.

“The partnership approach between state and industry is the secret sauce to getting the Athena launched by 2014,” Simpson said.

State funding will now allow the project to move into the detailed engineering phase with construction anticipated to begin this summer. Kodiak could launch its first Athena III by late 2014.

The spaceport also has two launches of the smaller Athena II rocket scheduled for 2013 and 2014.

Kodiak has launched 16 orbital and suborbital missions since it opened in 1998. It has placed 10 satellites into orbit.

Lockheed Martin is a security and aerospace company headquartered in Bethesda, Md. Its net sales for 2011 were $46.5 billion.

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

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