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The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, which is operated by a partnership that includes Old Dominion University, could become a global hub of space cargo transport as the result of a $171 million contract awarded Tuesday, Feb. 20, to a Virginia company.

Orbital Sciences Corp., which is based in Dulles, was chosen by NASA to develop an expendable rocket and delivery modules that can transport food, equipment and other essential items to personnel in the International Space Station (ISS). The company said it would use a MARS launch pad on a site leased from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore for the initial flight-testing and demonstration missions that are to begin in 2010.

The MARS partnership includes ODU, NASA and the states of Virginia and Maryland. The spaceport is operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA) and its fiscal agent is the ODU Research Foundation. ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology offers technology and aerospace engineering support for MARS.

Billie Reed, the ODU assistant professor of engineering management who is executive director of VCSFA, said the selection of Orbital Sciences reflects many months of hard work by the company in collaboration with the staffs of MARS and NASA Wallops. "It's huge," Reed said. "It represents a major opportunity for sustaining a business ultimately to provide cargo services" in space. "To do that here in Virginia is quite an achievement."

Oktay Baysal, the dean of ODU's Batten College, as well as an aerospace engineer, said this step toward MARS becoming a major launch site validates decisions made at the university a decade or more ago. "We dreamed, conceptualized and convinced the state to put together the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, and we appointed one of our professors to be the director. We have been waiting for activities to pick up for 8-10 years now."

Baysal said new activity at the spaceport also will present academic opportunities. "There are several layers of educational and research possibilities, and we try to exploit them."

The MARS pad that Orbital Sciences will use must be expanded to accommodate the company's Taurus II rocket. Lower payload Minotaur I rockets have been launched previously from the pad under contracts with the Air Force.

Orbital Sciences and one other California corporation will be groomed by NASA as part of the agency's $500 million Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program to take over transport missions upon the retirement in 2010 of the space shuttle fleet. The COTS program is aimed at finding lower price-per-flight alternatives through privately owned ventures.

After the refitting of the MARS launch pad, Orbital Science's first launch of its Taurus II rocket is scheduled for late 2010. If all goes well with the preliminary testing and demonstrations, MARS could become a primary launch facility for ISS resupply, hosting several launches per year. The project could mean 75 new jobs for the Eastern Shore, according to Reed.

"As a Virginia company we are naturally inclined to favor our home state," Antonio Elias, Orbital Science's executive vice president for advanced programs, told space.com.

This article was posted on: February 21, 2008

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