By Carol Vaughn —
Gov. Ralph Northam in a press conference Thursday announced retired U.S. Air Force Major General Roosevelt “Ted” Mercer will be the next chief executive officer and executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, also called Virginia Space.
Mercer will assume the role on Aug. 1, when Dale Nash, who has been CEO since 2012, retires.
“Major General Mercer has extensive experience in space with the United States Air Force and in industry, and his proven ability to bring partners to the table to work toward a shared goal will greatly benefit both Virginia Space and the Commonwealth,” Northam said, adding, “Under his leadership, Virginia is poised to maximize the investments we have made in our world-class spaceport and launch into the future as a leader in space exploration, research, and commerce.”
Mercer was selected out of a field of more than two dozen potential candidates, of whom six were interviewed by a search committee.
He has decades of experience in aerospace and as an executive in the military and private sectors, according to a press release.
Mercer in 2016 was named director of the interagency planning office for the “NextGen” program at the Federal Aviation Administration. He later was director of the NextGen Collaboration and Messaging Office.
He previously served 32 years in the United States Air Force, where his duties ranged from commanding the 30th Space Wing to commanding a space lift logistics group, developing national security policy, and serving as deputy director of operations for the Air Force Space Command Headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I am honored to have this opportunity to…lead one of only four spaceports in the nation that launches to orbit,” Mercer said.
“I am extremely excited to join the Virginia Space team and build on the legacy established by Dale Nash. The spaceport is already well-positioned for growth, and my objective is to leverage existing and future planned assets to take operational tempo to the next level. This will benefit existing spaceport customers, attract new business, and create jobs and economic investment in Virginia. I look forward to continuing the spaceport’s progress as a multi-purpose, multi-user facility,” he said.
Last year marked 25 years since the General Assembly established the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority as a political subdivision of the commonwealth, and the 75th anniversary of NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
Virginia Space owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), the MARS Unmanned Systems Test Range, the MARS Payload Processing Facility, and an Integration and Control Facility in Wallops Research Park, all at NASA Wallops Flight Facility
Twenty successful missions have launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
Wallops, including Virginia Space, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, the United States Navy, United States Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Northrop Grumman, and Rocket Lab, has a total economic impact of $1.37 billion a year in the region, Northam noted.
“MARS continues to attract diverse customers and support a wide variety of missions, ensuring that Virginia remains a premier leader in space exploration, research, and jobs. Virginia Space is well-positioned to play an important part in boosting our economic recovery and sustaining future growth, ” Northam said.
“This is an economic driver for the Eastern Shore. It’s an economic driver for Virginia. The more that we can develop space flight in Virginia, the more businesses, good businesses, that we can attract, literally from around the world,” he said.
Mercer said his immediate objective for the spaceport is “to leverage existing and future planned assets to take operational tempo to the next level, to strive to launch to our capacity.”
“I think the opportunity to grow in the next one to five years is just extraordinary,” Mercer said, noting companies increasingly are looking to put into orbit significant numbers of communication satellites, including just one company that is looking to put into orbit constellations of 60-plus satellites.
“When you look at the other communications capability that is exploding in low-Earth orbit and medium-Earth orbit, somebody is going to get those systems up. I want MARS and Virginia Space to be the place of choice for those satellite producers,” Mercer said.
Nash noted the spaceport is the location from which Northrup Grumman’s Antares rockets are launched on commercial missions carrying cargo to the International Space Station.
Additionally, Minotaur rockets on U.S. Department of Defense missions are launched from the spaceport.
“We are certainly open to any and all launches and I know that will continue,” Nash said.
Rocket Lab previously selected MARS as its United States launch site, with plans to start launching payloads including small satellites up to 660 pounds using its Electron rocket.
In March, the company announced plans for a larger rocket, the Neutron — a 131-foot-tall rocket with capability of carrying an 8-ton payload to orbit — describing the rocket as “tailored for mega-constellation deployment, interplanetary missions, and human spaceflight,” according to a press release.
Rocket Lab officials said Neutron launches also will take place from Wallops. The first launch is expected in 2024, according to the release.
Electron launches are expected to begin later this year.
In the future, six to eight launches per year are targeted for the Neutron rocket, according to Nash.
“So between the Northrup Grumman launches and the Rocket Lab launches we could be easily doing 20 or 25 launches per year in a couple of years,” Nash said, adding there are “four or five other rocket companies looking to come here, as well as very active participation by the Navy at our unmanned airfield that will pick up, has all the potential to pick up.”
Nash said a strong partnership with NASA and a good workforce are plusses for the spaceport’s future growth. He said there are locations, already cited in NASA environmental plans, to add two or three more launch pads at Wallops.
“It’s dollars. We do have space, we do have an incredible workforce, and we work very hard to be responsive,” Nash said, adding Mercer “has excellent, excellent opportunities and an outstanding level of support from the state that goes back 25 years.”
During his years as CEO, Nash led Virginia Space to major accomplishments, including the successful completion and then rebuild of Pad-0A, from which the Antares rocket launches; major upgrades to Pad-0B, where the Minotaur rocket is launched; completion of a 3,000-foot-long unmanned aerial systems airfield and vertical take-off and landing pad; completion of a new payload processing facility; completion of Launch Complex 2, which is the United States launch site for Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket; and construction of an integration and control facility for Rocket Lab at Wallops Research Park.
A search committee of five members of the Virginia Space Board of Directors oversaw the search for the new CEO, facilitated by executive search firm Boyden.
Retired USAF Major General Edward Bolton Jr. headed up the search committee.
“This is the fourth executive search that I have led, and it was the most extensive and exhaustive,” Bolton said, adding, “I am confident that the board has selected the best possible candidate to take the helm of Virginia Space and lead this business as we work to become an increasingly competitive space launch provider over the next decade.”
Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority board chairman Jeff Bingham said, “I am deeply grateful to Gov. Northam and Secretary (of Transportation Shannon) Valentine for their strong support for the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. I could not be more pleased with the result of the exhaustive search effort guided by Ed Bolton that led us to Ted Mercer, and his agreement to take the reins of executive leadership for Virginia Space. We have an exciting future ahead for Virginia Space and Ted is supremely qualified to help us realize the full potential of that future.”