KODIAK, Alaska—The Kodiak Launch Center has been quiet this year. Too quiet.
The facility, which is considered one of the finest anywhere in the world for for "small-lift" polar launches, has -- ironically -- not seen a launch since September 2011.
Part of the reason is the national economy. Another part of it is the Federal Budget Deficit. Funding for space -- like funding for many government programs in recent years -- has been cut.
The operators of Kodiak will tell you that next year, the United States will drop third in the world in total launch activity. We will fall behind old rivals like Russia and China. It's clearly frustrating for the "Steely-Eyed Missile Men" who work here. They're missile engineers with obvious pride in what they do.
In most of the world, only nations orbit satellites. But here in Alaska, the state does. The Alaska Aerospace Corporation has been operating for 16 years. And it has an impressive track record on the launch of small satellites: 100 percent success!
In 16 years, 16 satellites have been fired out of Kodiak. Every one of them was delivered to its assigned altitude in space.
But despite that success, Kodiak has a problem. Even though it's state of the art, it's only able to launch relatively small rockets into orbit. And, if you want to keep a launch complex busy, you need to also be in the "medium launch business".
Today the medium launch business means rockets that can develop over a million pounds of thrust.
Much of what flies out of Kodiak operates on a few hundred thousand pounds of thrust.
But to launch medium range rockets will take a big-investment.
Alaska Aerospace estimates it will need up to $125 million to build pads and towers for medium lift launchers. But the benefit it, it could 5 launches a year to this under-used facility. Right now, Kodiak only averages one a year.
To come up with more than a hundred million dollars, KLC will require taxpayer-backed loan guarantees.
But for the moment, that medium-lift future is still, if you'll pardon the expression, "up in the air".
It's not clear that KLC can get the money it needs to launch rockets that will stand nearly 200 feet high. Some of those rockets will be made of modified components from the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters.
But if KLC does get the money it needs, it is clear that it will have definite advantages over even such an august unmanned facility as NASA's Cape Canaveral (the neighboring Kennedy Space Center is home of manned launches in Florida. The Cape is home to unmanned launches. KLC is only capable of unmanned flight).
Florida's Cape can only launch satellites into west-to-east orbits. For safety reasons, launch trajectories must all head out over the Atlantic Ocean. Any rocket heading north or south (to polar orbit) would overfly population centers with heavy boosters. Those boosters, even in a successful launch, routinely fall to the ground from altitudes of 20 miles or more.
That means nothing can be launched into polar orbit out of the Cape. And that's a disadvantage. Some satellites simply have to fly over the poles. Only by flying over the poles can you overfly 100 percent of the earth's surface. Handy things -- such as GPS satellites -- would be useless to much of the population if they flew in more narrowly-confined Equatorial Orbits.
To make up-for the Cape's deficit, many unmanned Polar Missions are currently flown out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Southern California base allows flights to take a trajectory headed toward the South Pole and -- when they achieve orbit -- they overfly the north pole as well.
But Vandenberg has a problem. Some of its Launch Azimuths would force a rocket to overfly a populated nub on the coast near Los Angeles. That would be a violation of safety rules.
So the rockets must make a dog-leg turn in flight, so that there is no risk of a big booster impacting on some suburb.
But turning a massive, fast-moving rocket takes lots of energy. It incurs a "payload penalty" for the vehicle. The penalty can be as high as 19 percent. You can partially make up for this by loading less fuel onto a rocket, but that increases the risk that you won't successfully make it to orbit.
People who pay to put satellites in orbit usually fork over $10,000 per pound of payload -- just to put the satellite into the sky. So "payload penalties" -- like the ones suffered on some trajectories out of Vandenberg -- are not popular with launch clients.
That's where Kodiak has a big advantage over Southern California. As Alaska State Senate President Gary Stevens once jokingly said, "Well, the good thing about Kodiak is you can't hit anything 'til you get to Hawaii."
The remark, which made a room full of reporters erupt into laughter has the added benefit of being true. On almost any launch azimuth out of Kodiak, you're not in danger of hitting anyone. Rockets fired from there don't have to make fuel-consuming dog-legs. If you're paying ten thousand dollars a pound to put your equipment into orbit, then at Kodiak, you don't pay a penalty for unnecessary turns in the sky.
By the time a launch vehicle overflies Hawaii, 95% of its weight has been tossed away anyway -- in the form of useless fuel and spent stages. At that distance, it's no longer a danger.
But despite all these good features, there is controversy over Kodiak. Financial controversy.
So far, the facility has cost the state of Alaska $38 million dollars. The state says it's also willing to commit another $25 million dollars to KLC if outside funding can be found for a heavy-lift launch pad.
Critics say that, at some point, Kodiak should be able to pay for itself through launch clients -- and not with state subsidies.
But Alaska Aerospace points out that although it has spent a lot of state money, it has also attracted a lot of money to the state as well -- literally hundreds of millions of dollars.
So far, in 16 years, there have been $145 million in federal grants, and another $143 million paid to Alaska Aerospace in launch fees. Viewed that way, the return on the state's investment has been better than 4 to 1 so far.
In addition, Alaska Aerospace has brought 50 highly-paid aerospace jobs to Alaska. KLC says that could double to 100 if it can get heavy-lift launch capability. When rockets are launched, another 50 outside contractors book rooms in Kodiak for weeks at a time. They also spend money at restaurants and bars.
Alaska Aerospace says that over on the East Coast -- in Wallops Island, the state of Virginia has found that a NASA launch facility there has more than paid for itself through personal income taxes alone. The calculation is difficult to make for Alaska, which has no state income tax.
Right now no launches are scheduled from Kodiak for the rest of this year. There's a chance a payload could be launched in next year. And the launch schedule picks-up in 2014.
If money is found for heavy lift facilities, this place could be seeing a launch every other month -- from now, on into the indefinite future.