Empire Editorial: Waking up from Alaska's aerospace dream
On Monday, the 17th rocket since 1998 lifted off from the state-owned Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island. Four seconds after leaving the launchpad, the rocket exploded.
The blast damaged the complex — how extensively we do not yet know — and it may be a sign that it’s time to give up on the dream of an Alaskan aerospace industry.
Rather than use insurance payouts to rebuild the complex, Alaska Aerospace should consider using that money to demolish it.
When it was envisioned in the 1990s, the Kodiak Launch Complex was to be the centerpiece of a new branch to Alaska’s economy. Built with federal grant money secured by Sen. Ted Stevens, the launch complex would welcome rockets and satellites bound for polar orbits.
The companies that launch satellites need contractors, and they would turn to Alaskans, much as Alaska’s oil industry is served by a family tree of oilfield service companies.
Unfortunately, Alaska’s aerospace dream stubbed its toe on the doorjamb of reality.
Kodiak Launch Complex hasn’t been able to compete with launches from Vandenberg in California, and private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic haven’t shown much interest in launches from Alaska.
The problem has to do with the market.
The Kodiak launchpad can only fly small rockets, and it’s best suited for delivering satellites to polar orbits, ones that go north to south. Equatorial orbits, which run west to east, are more popular among commercial companies. That limits Kodiak to the military market and the market for polar science satellites.
A contract with the Missile Defense Agency was lucrative for Alaska Aerospace and the Kodiak Launch Complex, but that contract ended years ago and federal budget cuts mean little is available to replace it.
Three years ago, Alaska Aerospace (the state-owned corporation that operates Kodiak Launch Complex) began asking the Alaska Legislature for cash to make ends meet. This year, the corporation received $6 million in operating expenses and $2.4 million for capital costs.
We like the idea of an Alaskan aerospace industry, and we like Alaska Aerospace. It’s nice to dream about the Last Frontier becoming the gateway to the Final Frontier. Unfortunately, the market hasn’t matched our dreams.
After this week’s failure, no more launches are on Kodiak’s calendar.
Alaska Aerospace isn’t a failure of imagination. It’s not a failure of hard work or drive. It’s not the Delta Barley Project or the Alaska Seafood International plant. If the state gave up on Alaska Aerospace today, it would walk away having brought millions of dollars in economic development to Anchorage and Kodiak.
Dreams are wonderful, but you always have to wake up.
• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, email@example.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, email@example.com.