Last month, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe made headlines and history by flying aboard an unpiloted Centaur aircraft on the Eastern Shore, it did more than officially kick off the state's new $5 million drone runway.
It also ticked a key box in Virginia Space's five-year strategic plan to expand its operations and customer base at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport by adding aerial and submersible drone research and development.
As McAuliffe said at the time: "I want Virginia to own the land and the air and the water."
But Aubrey Layne, head of the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the state's 2017-2022 strategic plan for the spaceport pushes a measured approach to getting there. VDOT oversees Virginia Space.
That approach includes building on anchor tenant Orbital ATK and its NASA commercial contracts to resupply the International Space Station and avoiding pricey "pie-in-the-sky" dreams.
"We put almost $150 million in pads out there for our customer, Orbital, going to the space station," Layne said. "And yet, the board kept saying, 'Well, we've got to get the next one. Can we get (SpaceX's) Elon Musk? Can we get those guys here?' Well, that would have required additional hundreds of millions of dollars."
Now, after years of investment by Virginia taxpayers, he said, the spaceport has finally matured from a startup to a going concern.
In that time, Layne said, "two things have evolved: NASA has said, 'We want you to concentrate on this low-Earth orbit space. We don't see, long-term, there being humans (launching) out of there. Human spaceflight.'
"But what we are extremely well set up for is low-orbit, like the space station. Plus, we already spent a bunch of money, so we need to get the taxpayers a return on that. ... Not that we won't keep our eyes open if somebody — (Blue Origin's) Jeff Bezos or somebody — wants to come here. But it's got to make economic sense."
For the next five years, he said, the plan is to focus on ISS resupply missions, line up U.S. Department of Defense missions using Minotaur rockets from Pad 0B and NASA science missions using Orbital's Antares 230 rocket from Pad OA, sign up one or two more commercial space launch customers and missions and diversify further into drones and other aerospace markets.
The market for drone research and development isn't inconsequential. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has said the economic impact in Virginia once drones are integrated into U.S. airspace could be $342 million by 2025.
Such potential isn't lost on Dale Nash, executive director of Virginia Space.
"Part of the (spaceport) expansion is to try to get into everything unmanned — which we are definitely moving toward," Nash said.
Virginia Space is courting commercial, military and academic customers for the new drone airstrip, he said, but because of confidentiality concerns can't be more specific.
Another big push going forward is education, Layne said, particularly by enabling Virginia students from first grade through college to launch tiny science satellites into low-Earth orbit for free.
Layne said the state is partnering on the effort with Orbital, NASA and Twiggs Space Lab LLC. Orbital is offering the students payload space gratis aboard their Antares rockets.
As many as 80 of the tiniest satellites, about the size of a small cellphone, can launch in a single payload. Once released, the satellites can gather data for a few days to a few weeks before burning up in the atmosphere.
"So it's a really cool application," Layne said. "It's not going to earn us any money, but it broadens what we're doing out there, and getting education and other opportunities to citizens of Virginia."
Student satellites could begin launching from MARS as early as October, Nash said.
Virginia is one of only four states that own spaceports licensed by the FAA to launch payloads to orbit; the others are California, Florida and Alaska. Only MARS and Cape Canaveral Spaceport in Florida are capable of launching to the ISS; MARS has also launched science missions to the moon.
The list doesn't include big-league Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — these sites also launch rockets but are owned by the DOD and don't require FAA licensing.
Layne and Nash agree that the spaceport's biggest challenge of the last five years was the catastrophic explosion of an Antares rocket in October 2014 just seconds after liftoff. Faulty engines were to blame, and the upgraded Antares 230 now has new ones.
The spaceport's Pad OA also had to be rebuilt at a cost of $15 million. That cost was borne equally by the state, NASA and Orbital but not without some initial wrangling: The state had carried no insurance on its facility, while Orbital's insurance only covered its own assets.
"The biggest challenge was getting the Antares pad up and running — and also the biggest accomplishment," Nash said. Today, he said, the launch pad "is really in better shape than it's ever been."
After the rebuild, the upgraded Antares 230 launched successfully from MARS in October 2016.
"Going through that — we all came together to rebuild it," Layne said. "It really focused us on protecting our infrastructure and making sure that we had a business plan."
It also opened up areas for growth, he said, such as in unmanned aerial systems.
"We turned what looked like it would be a pretty significant setback," Layne said, "into a great opportunity."
MARS's two launch pads are built to handle small rockets and medium-lift ones like the Antares.
The strategic plan's five-year forecast for medium launches calls for two to three in 2017, two to four in 2018 and 2019, and three to four for 2020 through 2022.
This forecast assumes that Orbital makes at least two space station cargo runs a year and that the company secures at least one more launch per year starting in 2018, either for the space station, NASA science or a commercial customer.
The forecast also calls for the spaceport to host a small-launch flight provider at one to two flights a year beginning next year.
The goal is for the spaceport to become self-sustaining eventually. For now, Layne said, the state is funding it at about $15 million a year.
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.