By Connie Morrison —
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck brought his family from New Zealand to the Eastern Shore for the groundbreaking on a 250,000-square-foot rocket manufacturing complex just outside the entrance to Wallops Island launch facility on a 28-acre parcel that formerly held nine poultry houses.
Beck and his family were joined by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Virginia Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick, Accomack Board of Supervisors Chair Billy Joe Tarr, Sen. Lynwood Lewis, Del. Rob Bloxom, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Director Dennis Andrucyk, among other dignitaries and employees of Accomack County, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, and Virginia Space.
“With the turnout we have today, you might think something important is going on,” quipped CEO and Executive Director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority Ted Mercer, who hosted the event and introduced the governor and other speakers.
“We’re marking the next milestone in the race for space and Virginia is leading. This is a historic day,” said Gov. Youngkin. He thanked Rocket Lab, Virginia Space, NASA, and leaders across the commonwealth. “This is not a partisan moment; it is a nonpartisan moment. We had leadership from across our House of Delegates, from across our Senate.”
Youngkin said the project is “an economic boost for Virginia, an economic boost for Accomack County, and this is a boost for our nation, all happening right here on Wallops Island.
This is the future of Virginia.”
Beck recalled to the approximately 200 people gathered that while driving down the road near what would become the manufacturing site, he remarked, “Gee that would make a great rocket factory. And you want to be careful here in Virginia. When you say those sorts of things, it happens.”
Rocket Lab’s Neutron rocket is designed to be reused. “… We bring them back, landing them on barges and ultimately back to land on the launch site,” Beck told an Eastern Shore Post reporter following the groundbreaking.
The 490-ton Neutron will be made of carbon composite, a strong but lightweight material.
It will be the first large launch vehicle made of the material.
3-D printing technology and an automated fiber placement system has made use of the material more efficient, according to Beck.
The Neutron can lift 8 tons into low-Earth orbit in reusable mode or up to 15 tons otherwise.
Beck described phasing the construction and operation. “It will start to grow in pieces, so there will be little pieces of factory, and we will add onto it as the new facilities and the new systems we require start to come online,” he said. “… There will be a new launchpad. Our launchpad is a little different” and doesn’t require “great big erectors and transporters. The rocket spends the majority of its life vertical.”
The Eastern Shore community has been very supportive, Beck said. State agencies and community colleges are already working on plans to recruit and train for the 250 new jobs. “The Talent Accelerator Program started about two and a half years ago,” said Eric Futterman, of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Its team of recruiters will “source from all over the country,” and will work with Eastern Shore Community College on training programs.
Beck acknowledged that the workforce is a key element. “The thing that will allow us to grow quickly is getting the skilled workers and the people we need to be successful.”
ESCC Vice President for Academic Workforce Patrick Tompkins said the VEDP’s job is to recruit the first workers and to make sure they get trained. “And then to do the handoff to the college so that we continue to funnel the credentialed and qualified folks into their workforce.” He referenced Beck’s explanation of phased development, “so it won’t all start operating at once. It will be an ongoing process of several years” to recruit and train.
Expansion of the internship program was already underway before the Rocket Lab announcement, said ESCC President Jim Shaeffer. Strengthening the program “began with the five-year MOU [memorandum of understanding] that we have with NASA Goddard and NASA Wallops.” The MOU was signed in October 2021.
Tompkins said the college is well-positioned and already offers many of the programs Rocket Lab needs. “Working with the talent accelerator and with Rocket Lab, we will identify where the gaps are so that we can meet that need.” He also noted that some of the jobs will require general skills like critical thinking, the ability to write and communicate, and problem-solving.
Eastern Shore elected officials appeared elated with the day’s event.
Tarr drew laughs with his suggestion of calling it Rocket Ranch. “Less than a year ago, it was a poultry plant. And now it’s going to be a rocket place. … Rocket Lab has been here for a while with the Electron rocket. … The partnership has been here for years already.”
Lewis had “been watching this area increase and grow and capture the imagination of my fellow members of the General Assembly and a succession of governors” that culminated in Monday’s groundbreaking, he said. “It has been the greatest experience of my career in public service in Richmond.”
“I think this has been in the works for a lot longer than most people probably realize,” said Bloxom, who now serves on the MEI (Major Employment and Investment) Commission and will be in a position to help direct state resources to future needs at the site.
That could be crucial as the spaceport and Rocket Lab expand.
“Rocket Lab is our first in, hopefully, a string of companies that will be launching from the Wallops Flight Facility,” remarked Goddard director Andrucyk. His organization is testing software that will make launches safer. “Part of our contribution is what we call the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit capability, which simplifies the range operation and brings a lower-cost capability to U.S. launch service providers,” he said.
The software ensures that rockets launch and fly on the trajectory that was intended. “If it somehow veers off, it will terminate that vehicle to make sure the personnel and facilities remain safe.”
Virginia is one of only four states that the FAA has granted a spaceport license, said Merrick.
“You couldn’t ask for a better place to be at a better time in supporting the U.S. airspace and U.S. launch capability,” said Andrucyk.
Carol Vaughn contributed to this story.