RICHMOND — A retired U.S. Air Force general will lead Virginia Space into an era of expanded opportunity for commercial and defense rocket launches from state-owned pads at a regional spaceport at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore.
Maj. Gen. Roosevelt “Ted” Mercer will become chief executive officer and executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority on Aug. 1. He will succeed Dale Nash, who will retire after nine years of leading the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, one of four regional spaceports in the United States and a major part of Virginia’s hopes for economic development on the Eastern Shore.
“The opportunity to grow over the next one to five years is extraordinary,” Mercer said in a Zoom call Thursday with Gov. Ralph Northam, who announced the appointment of the general to the leadership of the state-run authority, known as Virginia Space.
Virginia has invested more than $160 million in the spaceport to win contracts for commercial and national defense missions, as well as testing of unmanned systems. Under a new transportation funding structure approved last year, the state will contribute $21 million annually to Virginia Space — an increase of $5 million.
“I think we’ll be able to take it to the next level, both for the Eastern Shore and the commonwealth, said Northam, who grew up in Accomack County as a neighbor to the 66-year-old NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility.
“Virginia Space is well-positioned to play an important part in boosting our economic recovery and sustaining future growth,” he told Mercer. “I know you will maximize the commonwealth’s investment and lead Virginia Space into the future, securing its position as a leader in the aerospace industry.”
The governor also hailed the work of Nash, who led the expansion of Virginia’s space program and its recovery from a botched Antares rocket launch in 2014. That incident caused $15 million in damage to the state-owned launch pad on the barrier island next to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Antares program resumed at Wallops with a flawless launch in 2016 to resupply the International Space Station under a pair of long-term contracts between NASA and Northrop Grumman, based in Fairfax County.
“He modernized the spaceport infrastructure and built its reputation, brand and competitiveness,” Northam said.
Next week, a Minotaur rocket is scheduled to launch from a second, smaller state-owned pad with three classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office, underscoring the spaceport’s growing role in supporting national defense and intelligence missions.
Virginia Space and the state also have invested $21.5 million to build a third pad and adjoining assembly building for Rocket Lab, a Los Angeles-based company that plans to launch its Electron rocket from Wallops later this year to deploy satellites in low orbit for commercial and government clients. Earlier this year, the company announced the development of a larger rocket, the Neutron, for those missions, beginning in 2024.
Between the Rocket Lab and Northrop Grumman contracts, “we could have easily 20 to 25 launches a year,” Nash said Thursday.
The spaceport also operates a runway and hangar for testing unmanned aviation systems, or drones, in the restricted air space over the sprawling NASA complex, which also includes operations for the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mercer promised to aggressively seek new business for the spaceport and expand its capacity for launching a broader range of booster rockets.
“Will we ever become a Cape Canaveral? Probably not,” he said of the launch complex in Florida for manned space missions. “We don’t have the space.”
However, the complex generates almost $1.4 billion in estimated economic impact for the Eastern Shore and surrounding region, creating jobs and boosting the local economy of Chincoteague and other neighboring communities.
“I look for space tourism to become more popular with each launch,” Mercer said.
Mercer is expected to begin work at Virginia Space on June 21 and become CEO and executive director on Aug. 1, when Nash steps down. He currently works at the Federal Aviation Administration as a director in the Next Generation Air Transportation System, known as NextGen.
He retired from the Air Force in 2008 after 32 years in a variety of leadership roles, including command of the 30th Space Wing and deputy director of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado.
“By bringing together government, private sector and military experience, General Mercer is prepared to position Virginia Space as a leader in reliable, resilient and agile access to space,” Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said.