“Our intent is to rebuild a launch complex out at Kodiak,” AAC president and CEO Craig Campbell said at a meeting of the corporation’s board Thursday. “That’s our goal — to get back to everything the way it was before this test.”
The AAC board of directors held a regularly scheduled quarterly business meeting at the Kodiak Harbor Convention Center. After a rocket carrying an experimental hypersonic glider for an Army weapons system test exploded over the launch pad at Narrow Cape, the meeting agenda was changed to accommodate discussion of the accident.
Campbell said AAC would focus on the structures in Kodiak while the Department of Defense takes the lead on investigating the failed rocket launch. However, the state-owned corporation will not go to the Legislature to pay for rebuilding, he said.
Since AAC’s Kodiak Launch Complex became operational in 1998 the corporation has depended on federal and state grants to keep going, as customers for launch services proved harder to find than expected. Monday’s launch was the first in Kodiak since September 2011.
But Campbell was upbeat about the financial prospects of AAC, which expects to be off state contributions by 2018.
“We will reduce (state) funding each year by $2 million,” he said.
Alaska’s contribution to AAC was $6 million in 2014, down from $8 million in 2013. It got $15 million in 2007.
State Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, believes AAC can meet the zero-funding goal with new customers and investors.
“It is quite realistic,” said Stevens, a non-voting ex officio member of the AAC board.
He cited falling oil tax revenues as a reason legislators would be unlikely to change AAC’s funding trajectory.
“At this point it is clear what they can expect from the state,” Stevens said.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell agreed that the annual contribution should be phased out.
“Both myself and legislators … understand that the Kodiak launch facility has to pencil out in the end,” Parnell said Thursday during an unrelated visit to Kodiak. “We cannot maintain a launch facility through subsidies through its entire life.”
However, the governor said he and the Legislature are committed to supporting expansion of the Kodiak Launch Facility to include a third launch pad, one that can accommodate medium-lift rockets with heavier payloads than the facility can currently handle.
A public hearing on the environmental assessment for the proposed Launch Pad 3 is set for Oct. 6 or 7 in Kodiak, launch facility general manager John Zbitneff said.
Parnell said he is confident AAC will find more business and bring more jobs to Alaska, but acknowledged, “So far we have not seen that happen.”
So far AAC’s only customers for launch services have been military, primarily the Missile Defense Agency, which ended its contract for Kodiak to launch target drones in 2009.
Campbell acknowledged the military background and connections of AAC leadership, many of whom are former Air Force officers, affected the corporation’s marketing.
“We did get complacent,” he said.
Campbell called the commercial market “critical” to AAC becoming self-sufficient.
“I’m privatizing. I’m taking this commercial operation into a truly non-government funded business,” he said, although AAC “will still welcome government launches.”
As part of the strategy he hired a new marketing expert and plans to have a booth at an annual space industry convention hosted by the Army in Huntsville, Alabama.
Campbell said its suitability for launching circumpolar, as opposed to equatorial, satellites is a primary selling point of Kodiak over facilities at lower latitudes, including Wallops Island, Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Stevens and Parnell agreed.
“Kodiak is the right place, the ideal place, to launch polar satellites,” Stevens said.
Parnell said the polar orbit capability gives Kodiak a “special and unique place in our defense picture.”
“So we have a unique competitive advantage when it comes to these launches of satellites … primarily for the Department of Defense, but also for some private applications for telecommunications,” he said.
Campbell said he wants to talk to SpaceX, a private company developing a launch facility in Texas, about sharing customers who want the different orbital options.
As part of the AAC’s new marketing strategy, the name of the Kodiak Launch Complex will change to the Pacific Spaceport Complex, effective Jan. 1, 2015, Stevens said.
“They intend to be doing more than just launching rockets,” he said.
On another tack, Campbell told the AAC board about efforts to get Congress to “create equity” among launch service providers. He said Congress has favored federal sites such as Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg in California with financial support.
A request for a comparatively modest $7 million to support non-federal sites — notably AAC’s Kodiak facility and the Wallops Island facility owned by the commonwealth of Virginia — will probably not get any action in the current session. However, he thinks AAC may come into a $2.5 million share of that appropriation in late 2015.
Campbell said Monday’s accident might have a short-term chilling effect on customers.
“I do expect that there will be a little bit in the industry that, 'Oh, they had an accident at Kodiak, are they really safe?’” he said. “We'll probably have to go out and make sure everybody understands that this is the space business, we’re state of the art, did our job very well. If a mistake was made, we’ll tell the world, ‘Here's how we fixed it.’
“We’ll continue to remind potential customers that other launch facilities have all had problems like this, too.”
An Aug. 22 launch at the SpaceX facility near Bownsville, Texas, ended in an automatic self-destruct about 20 seconds into the flight.
Stevens said he knows finding the cause of Monday’s incident will take months, but he gave a preliminary opinion.
“It was not the fault of KLC,” he said. “There will be a thorough study of who was responsible.”
Parnell said, “It wasn’t our management team that did this, but they’ve got to get past this, get the facilities restored and get the ability back.”
Campbell said the rocket business is still imperfect and the industry understands that test programs like the Army’s weapon system involve high risk.
“That's why we don't have it like an airline where you just buy a ticket and get on a rocket and fly somewhere,” he said. “It's still a more dangerous business than the airplane business.”
Casey Grove and Julie Herrmann contributed to this story.
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