By Carol Vaughn —
Accomack County is a finalist to be the site of a Rocket Lab facility that will support parts production, assembly, integration, and testing for the company’s massive new Neutron rocket.
The company previously announced it will launch rockets from Wallops Island.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that Accomack is a finalist for the proposed facility, which would result in 250 jobs being created on the Shore.
Rocket Lab senior communications advisor Murielle Baker said Tuesday the company is “not yet in a position to comment further on the Virginia or other site selection proposals, as Rocket Lab continues its competitive process to select the Neutron launch site, rocket production facility, and Archimedes engine test facility.”
Baker said the company has “not established a definitive timetable for the site selection process at this time.”
If Accomack County is selected, Rocket Lab, a private company founded in 2006, will expand to two launch pads on Wallops Island, one each for the Electron and the Neutron rockets.
Because of the Neutron’s size — it’s designed to be 131 feet tall and 23 feet in diameter — large assemblies of the rocket are expected to be done close to the launch site chosen by the company in order to minimize logistical and operational costs, according to a press release.
“The prospect of Rocket Lab coming to Accomack is incredible for someone who grew up just a few miles from Wallops Island,” said Northam, adding, “I used to love watching rockets take off when I was a kid. Years later, I’m excited to work with Rocket Lab to help create exciting new opportunities near my family home on the Eastern Shore. Wallops Island is one of just four major launch sites in the United States — and the only one located in the country’s best state for business. I’m so proud of the work our Virginia team has done to get to this final step. I challenge everyone on the Commonwealth’s team, and everyone at Rocket Lab, to get this project over the finish line — and propel Rocket Lab and Virginia’s Eastern Shore to new heights.”
The Virginia Economic Development Partnership worked with Accomack County, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (Virginia Space), and the General Assembly’s Major Employment and Investment (MEI) Project Approval Commission to secure funding for the project.
A one-time $30 million appropriation to Virginia Space to pay for the infrastructure and operational systems involved is proposed, subject to General Assembly approval.
The MEI Project Approval Commission approved up to $15 million for site improvements and construction of a building on a 28-acre parcel adjacent to Wallops Island.
Virginia Space purchased the property on Wallops Island Road, which was formerly a poultry farm, in 2021. Virginia Space will own the facility, which will be leased to Rocket Lab, according to the proposal.
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors in July approved rezoning the property from agricultural to industrial use, as well as approving two conditional use permits required for the rocket production and testing facility.
“On behalf of Accomack County, I want to thank Rocket Lab for considering the county as the location to manufacture and launch the Neutron rocket,” said Accomack Board of Supervisors Chairman Billy Joe Tarr. “This would be a tremendous opportunity for all involved and a huge economic boost for Accomack County. We hope to watch Electron and Neutron Rocket launches from Virginia Space’s MARS Facility on Wallops Island in the near future,” he said.
Accomack County Administrator Michael Mason called Tuesday “a very important day for Accomack County,” saying, “Rocket Lab’s proposed plans, along with the efforts of our partners Virginia Space, Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and NASA Wallops, would put the Commonwealth of Virginia and Accomack County in a position to be a leader in the aerospace launch and manufacturing industry. We look forward to the opportunity to welcome Rocket Lab and the future successes they would undoubtedly bring to the entire Eastern Shore.”
Federal and state officials weighed in on the announcement, including Rep. Elaine Luria, who said, “The proposal to expand Rocket Lab USA in Accomack is an exciting opportunity that would bring 250 jobs to the Eastern Shore of Virginia and help to solidify Virginia’s role as a national leader in the space industry. I am proud to support initiatives that will help create economic opportunities for the Eastern Shore.”
Virginia Sen. Lynwood Lewis said, “Rocket Lab’s new operation in Accomack County would be a game changer for the Eastern Shore and the Commonwealth, and even more economic activity would flow from this great project. We are thrilled that Virginia is a finalist for this expansion, and hope to build a lasting partnership with this industry-leading company.”
“I appreciate the hard work by all sides that have gotten us to this point as a finalist,” said Del. Robert Bloxom, adding, “Rocket Lab would be a welcome addition to the Virginia Spaceport and Accomack County. I am sure with the great workforce and the infrastructure currently offered by NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Rocket Lab will choose to expand their operations on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.”
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said the expanded partnership with Rocket Lab “would accelerate our shared mission to provide agile, responsive access to space.”
“Through great collaboration among the Commonwealth, Virginia Space, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and industry leader Rocket Lab, this proposal would continue to develop Wallops Island as a world-class launch site and a strategic national asset,” she said.
Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball said the company’s decision to expand its operations in Accomack County “would be a testament to the Commonwealth’s position as anaerospace industry leader.”
“This would be a huge win for the Eastern Shore and for all of Virginia, and we hope to build upon our strong partnership with Rocket Lab for years to come,” he said.
Rocket Lab has not yet launched its Electron rocket, which is smaller than the Neutron, from Wallops Island.
The company is working with NASA “to secure all necessary agreements and certifications to launch from Wallops,” according to the release.
Construction on Rocket Lab’s launch complex for the Electron at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops started in February 2019 and the complex was officially opened in December 2019.
The launch complex is designed to support “rapid call-up missions,” according to a release from the company at the time, which said “the ability to deploy satellites to precise orbits in a matter of hours, not months or years, is increasingly important to ensure resilience in space.”
The launch complex includes a pad made from more than 1,400 cubic yards of concrete, a 66-ton launch platform, and a 44-foot, 7.6-ton “strongback,” which lifts the rocket into launch position.
The company also built an integration and control facility at Wallops Research Park for processing payloads and Electron rockets before liftoff.
The Neutron is expected to be ready to launch in late 2024. It is designed to carry a 17,600-pound payload to low Earth orbit and also to be capable of supporting human spaceflight.
Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 and has launched numerous missions from its New Zealand site.
Headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., Rocket Lab designs and manufactures the Electron small orbital launch vehicle and the Photon satellite platform and is developing the Neutron 8-ton rocket. Since its first orbital launch in January 2018, Rocket Lab’s Electron has become the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket annually and has delivered 109 satellites to orbit for both the private and public sectors.
The company’s Photon platform was selected to support NASA missions to the moon and Mars and the first commercial mission to Venus, according to the release.