Kodiak complex gets boost from Lockheed

Courtesy Lockheed Martin

Alaska Aerospace Corp. is developing a medium-sized launch facility to add to the two smaller launch pads at the Kodiak Launch Complex.

The Kodiak Launch Complex can currently handle small satellite launches up to 4,000 pounds. The addition of a medium-sized launch site will allow payloads of more than 10,000 pounds. While Gov. Sean Parnell has set aside money for this venture, progress will rely on how well Alaska Aerospace’s customer, Lockheed Martin, is able to establish its new rocket in the marketplace.

Lockheed Martin has committed to Kodiak as the west coast launch site for its medium-sized Athena III rocket. Lockheed Martin’s Athena program manager, Al Simpson, and deputy program manager, Larry Stuntz, said the next step is to line up customers to place satellites on the rocket.

This progress will factor in to Alaska Aerospace’s ability to secure the funding after Parnell approved $25 million in the fiscal year 2013 capital budget to help stimulate the medium-lift facility.

Craig Campbell, president and chief operating officer for Alaska Aerospace Corp., said financing must still be secured for the project, which is estimated to cost approximately $125 million. He said this will begin after Lockheed Martin establishes its manifest with the launch dates.

Simpson said Lockheed Martin is building this manifest by seeking customers to put satellites on the rocket and estimated that the launches would occur in late 2014 or early 2015. In the meantime, Alaska Aerospace is working on the environmental process and engineering design work for a medium-lift facility.

Campbell called the state capital budget money a “gated approach” because only $3 million is authorized to be spent immediately for the design and environmental work.

He said another $10 million may be spent on general infrastructure after this initial work. This would include road improvements and utility work rather than direct construction on the launch facility. This also depends on Lockheed Martin.

Campbell said the final $12 million would not be authorized until a customer such as Lockheed Martin has provided the manifest and financing for the rest of the facility has been secured.

Lockheed Martin has pledged to support financing for the remaining balance of the project cost, which could be about $100 million.

Simpson said Lockheed Martin, Alaska Aerospace Corp. and the State of Alaska must work on their separate roles simultaneously to develop a customer base and building plans that substantiate a market for the launch pad.

Alaska State Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the venture opens doors to new industry for the state.


Aerospace summit

Stevens brought economic and academic experts together with legislators for an aerospace summit on June 21 in Anchorage. He said some of his most pressing questions about the industry’s future in the state were answered.

For example, he was unsure if Kodiak’s weather conditions were suitable for bigger launches and learned that the area’s fog levels give it at an advantage over its competitor at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with more days of launch availability.

Stevens said the summit revealed Alaska’s distance from the contiguous United States won’t be a disadvantage as some had originally assumed. He said Lockheed Martin assured them that launches are planned out well in advance enough and all materials can be transported without incident.

Stevens said one of his biggest concerns going into the summit was whether or not Alaska could produce the right amount of educated people for such a specialized field, either in vocational areas or even rocket scientists. He said the University of Alaska engineering representatives were very supportive of the industry and can provide students with the proper training.

“Those are great opportunities for Alaska kids, I would think,” he said.

Lockheed Martin project manager Stuntz, who was at this summit, said it was encouraging for the company to see such a widespread local interest in this industry.

He and Simpson said this combined with local legislative support encourages rocket-based companies to invest. Local support also goes a long way in developing the business plan.

“That’s an important thing because not all states do that,” Stuntz said, adding that Stevens’ plans for a future summit could be made to coincide with a supplier conference in Alaska.


Economic development

Stevens said the aerospace industry represents a growth opportunity for the state as a whole, both in job creation and revenues. He said it opens employment opportunities beyond those directly involved in the launches to those in welding shops, suppliers and freighters.

He said Kodiak’s tourism would also get a boost because people travel there to witness Alaskan space launches.

“For a community like Kodiak, I think whenever you can get well-educated folks living in your community it just raises the whole lifestyle,” Stevens said.

He said these revenues go beyond Kodiak but also other communities. He said rocket assembly would occur in Anchorage and Kenai, and many engineers would likely come from Anchorage and Fairbanks. Anchorage would serve as the hub of the industry just as it does for so many others because Alaska Aerospace Corp. headquarters is located there.

“It’s not the answer to all our economic problems, but I think that it certainly helps out,” Stevens said. “It helps out communities. It helps out Alaska.”

Simpson said a launch would definitely be an economic benefit to the state, but the biggest boost is to the supply chain in Alaska.

Lockheed Martin, Alaska Aerospace and the State of Alaska are working together to figure out how to create a stable supply chain, which includes some elements of rocket construction.

Simpson said having this supply chain would also need Alaskan engineers, which is something the state and university can work on and said it creates a technology pool for engineering graduates to work on within the state.

“It’s exciting and it sort of shows Alaska can be a part of the new age,” Stevens said.


Kodiak vs. Vandenberg

Kodiak Launch Complex’s main competitor for polar launches is Vandenberg. Both are west coast facilities that focus on polar launches. While Kodiak will be the exclusive launch site for Athena, Alaska Aerospace Corp. must outline advantages for polar launches to other companies.

“Kodiak’s just a better fit for us,” Stuntz said. “So we’ll be launching out of Kodiak for all of our high-inclination missions.”

Simpson said that even though the company is also working on an equatorial launch out of Florida, its first launch could still be from Kodiak, depending on how the customer manifest develops.

The next potential customer is Orbital Sciences Corp. This company is working on an east coast equatorial rocket launch this summer called the Antares. Orbital intends to add a west coast site after the first launch. Orbital hasn’t announced Kodiak as a preferred site, but its decision is also between Alaska and Vandenberg.

Campbell, of Alaska Aerospace, said he believes they will ultimately choose Kodiak and so the new lift will be built to accommodate both the Athena and Antares. Stevens also expects Orbital will work more on polar launches after its current project and said Kodiak has a good chance of being Orbital’s chosen launch site for these missions.

Equatorial orbits move around the eqator. The advantage of these is that they can remain over certain points along the equator. Campbell said a little more than 60 percent of the current satellites in space operate on equatorial orbits.

Polar launches put satellites into an orbit inclined from the equator at about 90 degrees, or at least inclined enough to circle the poles. Campbell said the advantage of polar launches is that they cover both northern and southern hemispheres.

Campbell said places like Alaska and northern Canada don’t get good service from equatorial satellite, which is why Kodiak is strictly a polar lift facility. He said east coast facilities like Wallops Island, Va., and Cape Canaveral, Fla., provide equatorial launches and don’t compete with Kodiak.

“It’s pretty simple. If you’re going polar, you’re going to the west coast. If you’re going equatorial, you’re going to the east coast,” Campbell said.

Customer competition also plays to Kodiak’s advantage. Campbell said Kodiak doesn’t have competition because it just works for the State of Alaska while Vandenberg has several different agencies vying for use.

“We’re less congested basically. You’re just working at Kodiak. You’re the single customer. You have a lot of flexibility,” he said.

Vandenberg has an advantage in size and infrastructure. It currently launches most of the country’s polar satellites.

Stevens said Kodiak’s lower costs and the newness of the facility still give it an edge over. Campbell said another advantage of Kodiak is that it’s a state-owned facility rather than a federally owned one like Vandenberg. This allows Kodiak customers to bypass federal bureaucracy.

Simpson said Kodiak is better suited to Lockheed Martin’s high-inclination orbits and that the facilities allow for better scheduling than a traditional government range.

“On the operational side, we have an advantage over Vandenberg on reaching the optimum polar orbit,” Campbell said.

Launches from Kodiak can go directly into this optimum polar orbit at 43.4 degrees while Vandenberg launch must turn lightly into this orbit, which burns more fuel. Campbell said rockets here don’t have to carry that fuel and so can carry heavier payloads.

Stevens said that Kodiak has a good chance of being selected for the company’s polar launches after the current Athena mission is complete.


Space launches

Alaska Aerospace Corp. was formed in the 1980s to promote Alaska’s space launch capabilities. The Kodiak Launch Complex was its major focus. There have been 16 launches from Kodiak over the years, including ones by Lockheed Martin and Orbital. The first Athena launched from Kodiak in September 2001.

“It was envisioned that Kodiak would be the alternative for commercial launches,” Campbell said.

The Kodiak Launch Complex was established as a competitor to Vandenberg because there was a vision that the private commercial satellite market would grow rapidly and that Kodiak would be an alternative for such commercial launches.

While the commercial industry didn’t expand as much as expected then, Kodiak went in to compete for government launches, which have made up all of its launches so far.

Campbell said the medium-sized rockets that both Lockheed Martin and Orbital are looking at contain a mixture of government and commercial customers. Still, they have an emphasis on the commercial market that has been underserved in the United States.

Lockheed is pursuing both commercial and government customers for the Athena III.

Campbell said his talks with Lockheed Martin and Orbital still don’t present a vision for any strictly commercial launches, but there is still a desire for commercial industry launches in the country because 80 percent of commercial launches occur overseas.


Jonathan Grass can be reached at [email protected].

07/12/2012 - 10:05pm