KODIAK, Alaska - Alaska Aerospace Corporation's plans for a new launch pad have been delayed, not canceled.
In a four-hour board meeting Thursday at the Kodiak Launch Complex, CEO Craig Campbell confirmed that Lockheed-Martin's delays in finding customers for a new, larger Kodiak-launched rocket means at least a one-year delay in construction of Launch Pad 3.
"Now we're projecting into the 2015 period for the launch of the Athena III," Campbell said.
That timeline means construction will not begin until next summer at the earliest.
Work isn't standing still on the project that has been hailed as the future of the Narrow Cape complex. Campbell told board members he's keeping the ball moving on the environmental assessment that must take place before the launch pad can be built. "We expect that to roll forward in the next couple months, then go out to a public comment period," he said.
During the last session of the Alaska Legislature, Gov. Sean Parnell pledged $25 million in state support for the $125 million estimated cost of the launch pad. Financial "gates" are built in to that amount, ensuring Alaska Aerospace cannot move forward with construction and design until a contract is in hand and private financing in place.
Campbell said he has added restrictions of his own and will spend no more than $1 million until Lockheed commits to a launch date and signs a contract.
That amount takes the project to about 65 percent of design, but not engineering work, Campbell said.
The corporation stopped deliberately short of detailed engineering in an attempt to accommodate Orbital Sciences, another space company that has expressed an interest in launching from Kodiak.
Orbital's Antares rocket is designed differently than Lockheed's Athena III, and the new launch pad would need extra equipment to serve both rockets. Orbital is considering both Kodiak and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as its West Coast launch site for the Antares, but it is not expected to decide between the two until early next year, after it launches its first Antares from a spaceport in Virginia.
"I don't want to get into an engineering and design concept for a solid-based rocket only to find out Orbital is coming here with a liquid-based rocket," Campbell said.
While the delay may pay off for Kodiak if another customer is willing to spend millions for permission to launch rockets from Alaska, the slow pace of development could continue if Congress drags its feet on the federal budget.
The vast majority of America's space projects are at least partially funded by the federal government, and Congress' inability to pass a new defense budget means multibillion-dollar contractors like Lockheed and Orbital don't know how much they can sell. That, in turn, means those companies don't know how many rockets they need to launch from places like Kodiak.
In addition, said Alaska Aerospace chief operating officer Mark Greby, companies like Orbital and Lockheed are awaiting the results of November's presidential election. President Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney have similar space policies, but a few percent difference in funding represents hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, Greby said. "In all honesty, they're all stalling to see which way the climate is going."
Until that weather forecast changes, Launch Pad 3 looks to be stuck in the cold.