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Will Alaska-Virginia spaceflight partnership help launch commercial space age?

Joseph Miller | The Arctic Sounder
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell announced on Thursday that an operating agreement between the Alaska Aerospace Corporation and the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority will be binding the two states in a partnership that will share engineering, technical knowledge and operating procedures with each other from across the country. Courtesy Alaska Aerospace Corporation

Alaska and Virginia are partnering up for the beginning of the long and interesting age of commercial space flight. As of right now, Virginia and Alaska are the only states that have a commercial spaceport designated for private companies wishing to purchase a way into the final frontier.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell announced on Thursday that an operating agreement between the Alaska Aerospace Corporation and the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority will be binding the two states in a partnership that will share engineering, technical knowledge and operating procedures with each other from across the country.

The state of Alaska created the Alaska Aerospace Corporation in 1991 in an attempt to develop an aerospace sector in Alaska's already diverse economy. The Kodiak Launch Complex was built, among other reasons, as an attempt to compete with the Vandenberg Spaceport in California. The corporation was able to pay for its own operations from its launches and from federal grants, but for the past 2 years, Alaska Aerospace Corporation has been having to rely on state subsidies to keep the station open and operational.

The state gave $4 million to the corporation in 2011 and another $8 million last year when Gov. Parnell approved spending $25 million to expand the corporation's launch facility on Kodiak. This year, the corporation received another $8 million in funding from the Alaska State Legislature.

The governors said on Thursday that the collaboration would benefit both states. Gov. Parnell said that it would also provide cost-effective and reliable launch options for companies.

 "Alaska has been at the forefront of space launch for nearly 20 years," Parnell said in a press release. "With this agreement, we will be creating opportunities for the commercial space industry to secure cost effective and reliable launch operations from both the east and west coasts. Both Alaska and Virginia will benefit with greater investment and job opportunities as leaders in the burgeoning commercial space industry."

The new Memorandum of Understanding signed by both governors lays out the intent of the state of Alaska and the Commonwealth of Virginia to begin a collaborative partnership for spaceport operations. Future launch customers will see the business advantages from the new partnership that will promote and allow efficiency between the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and the Kodiak Launch Complex that is designed to create a commonality between the two space-launch complexes that will decrease the costs of launches and spaceport operations and improve the overall performance of both facilities.

The new partnership with Virginia will allow Alaska Aerospace Corporation to stay afloat during a rough economic time for the program. The state legislature only cut the corporation's budget by one percent this year, but it was made clear that the funding would be cut by another 25 percent if a new launch contract was not secured by March of next year, which would be enough to completely shut down the Kodiak Launch Complex. By joining forces with the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority, The Kodiak Launch Complex will appear more attractive to companies like Orbital Sciences, a company that is in the process of deciding where it wants to launch its mid-size rockets from.

The Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority has already done business with Orbital Sciences and its new connection with Alaska will hopefully pass customers like Orbital Sciences towards the Kodiak Launch Complex.

Both facilities in Virginia and Alaska support space operations for small and medium lift rockets. Virginia's operations are more targeted towards equatorial, low and mid-inclination orbits, while Alaska's launches deal more specifically with the operations of polar and high-inclination orbits.

"By using similar or compatible launch vehicles to two non-competing orbital profiles, Alaska and Virginia can work collaboratively to develop and offer a combination of spaceport industry services that is more attractive and beneficial to the rocket and satellite industry than either state or commonwealth working independently." reads the Memorandum of Understanding for Spaceport Operations, signed by both Gov. Parnell and McDonnell.

It remains to be seen what will become of this new partnership between Alaska and Virginia, but when dealing with private companies interested in venturing into the great beyond, the Kodiak Launch Complex has lost a competitor and gained an ally. Now Alaska enters a waiting game for more launch contracts to appear as a result of the new Memorandum of Understanding. Let the countdown begin.

This story originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.