KODIAK — Alaska has played its cards. Now it’s Lockheed’s turn at the table.
Earlier this spring, the Alaska Legislature, at Gov. Sean Parnell’s urging, approved $25 million for a new launch pad at the Kodiak Launch Complex.
The approval came after aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin picked Kodiak as the West Coast launch site for a new medium-lift rocket. Along with the pick, Lockheed pledged to support $100 million in additional financing for the launch pad.
Right now, Lockheed is drafting its business plan and searching for customers interested in putting their satellites in space on an Alaska rocket. Once that business plan is complete, Lockheed and Alaska Aerospace Corp., which operates the complex, can get financing to start construction on the new launch pad.
“We have to have that in order to solidify and close any financing package,” said Alaska Aerospace president Craig Campbell.
Without a firm commitment from Lockheed, Alaska Aerospace can spend only $3 million of the $25 million approved by the Legislature. It’s a safety gate intended to keep the state from being exposed if Lockheed can’t find someone to ride its rocket.
At the same time, that safety measure means Alaska Aerospace can’t yet move ahead with construction of the new launch pad. The $3 million will buy an environmental assessment and basic planning, but it won’t cover bulldozers and construction contracts.
“We’ve got the $25 million from the state, and Aerospace is moving forward with design, but they can’t build until they have a contract and customers,” said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, a nonvoting member of the Alaska Aerospace board of directors.
Campbell said the project’s environmental assessment should be complete within the next 60 to 90 days. By that time, he hopes Lockheed will be ready to commit fully.
If Lockheed doesn’t come through, there is still another option.
This fall, aerospace corporation Orbital Sciences will launch Antares, a new medium-lift rocket competing with Lockheed’s.
Orbital’s first Antares will lift off from a launch pad in Virginia, but the company has not yet picked a West Coast launch site. Kodiak is in the running, an Orbital representative said at last week’s Alaska Rocket and Space Summit in Anchorage.
If Orbital does come, Alaska Aerospace needs to know sooner rather than later. Lockheed’s rocket is solid-fueled, requiring less infrastructure on the ground. Orbital’s missile is liquid-fueled, meaning complicated fueling equipment would have to be ordered ahead of time, and a different design would be needed.
“To some degree, it’s best for Orbital to make their decision early,” Campbell said.
In the best-case scenario for Alaska Aerospace, both companies would want to launch from Kodiak and a design could be drawn up for that.
To avoid missing this summer’s construction season, however, Alaska Aerospace needs an answer soon.
“In the next 30, maybe even 60 days, it doesn’t really matter,” Campbell said. “Probably by September at the latest, we’d have to go into final designs for construction. When they have a manifest, when I have a launch schedule, I can get funding from a bank.”
Work can be done in the winter, but it’s more expensive and difficult.
A bigger problem than difficult construction is Alaska Aerospace’s financial footing. This spring, Parnell asked the Legislature for, and received, $8 million in operating funds for the corporation.
At the time, several legislators mentioned they would be reluctant to approve more funding for the corporation without the interest of private industry.
At last week’s summit in Anchorage, that interest showed up.
Representatives from Lockheed, Orbital, rocket engine maker ATK and Boeing flew to Anchorage, as did at least 10 Alaska legislators and representatives of the University of Alaska.
Summit organizer Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, was pleased with the turnout and the ideas floated by attendees.
“The opportunities sound really great, and I was pleased to hear what everybody else was thinking,” he said.
Campbell agreed, saying the meeting was a good chance for the aerospace industry to see Alaska is taking it seriously and for legislators to see that industry is looking at Alaska on equal terms.
Austerman said he was most interested in the reassurance that industry is interested in the Kodiak Launch Complex.
“They’re interested in doing business in Alaska,” he said.
Until that interest turns physical, however, Alaska Aerospace has its dreams in the clouds and its feet standing still.