Kodiak Island, Rocket Lab, Orbex & Vector Space: A lesson to be learnt

26th Dec 2019
kodiak island launch site

There has been a rocket launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska, since 1998. Since then there have been 21 launches from the site, most of which have been for the US government.

The first orbital launch from Kodiak was in 2001 on behalf of Lockheed Martin & NASA, although two months later another attempted launch went terribly wrong when the rocket exploded less than a minute after launch. This wasn’t the only disaster at the location as another rocket exploded in 2014 which almost destroyed the launch pad and resulted in the facility closing for two years while it went through a program of reconstruction.

Recently, a number of private commercial launch companies announced their intention to launch from the Kodiak site. Rocket Lab USA (part owned by Lockheed Martin) and Vector Launch, both announced publicly that they would launch from Kodiak at some point in 2019. Although to date, neither the Lockheed Martin launch or the Vector launch has happened. In fact, Vector have since been declared bankrupt and their assets potentially being snapped up by Lockheed Martin.

It seems trouble had been brewing for Vector since August when they lost their CEO and reports starting appearing about financial problems at the firm…

Interestingly, Lockheed have now set their sights on a new launch location, having raised £23 million from the UK Government via its UK Space Agency.

With a launch facility already available to them (at Kodiak Island), it is interesting that Lockheed Martin would wish to secure the Scottish launch facility, particularly as the founder of Rocket Lab publicly declared that he had no intention to ever launch from UK mainland (but has announced a launch at Kodiak Island), raising the question of which rocket Lockheed Martin will launch from this new site, given the conflicting and confusing information coming from Rocket Lab. 

It’s a difficult task trying to make the economic case for Lockheed Martin at Sutherland as there doesn’t appear to be much of a route to revenue for them there other than potentially a small fee from companies choosing to launch from there. One of the other recipients of UKSA funding at Sutherland is launch vehicle provider, Orbex Space, who have declared that they will be launching somewhere between 10 and 20 times per year from the location. Which, given the small size of the facility and with only one launchpad, would seriously limit any prospect of others launching.

And if this new Scottish site are able to perform 10 to 20 launches per year, why was Kodiak only able to perform 21 launches in its 20 years of existence? What was happening at the site the rest of the time? It would certainly look like it was being used for military purposes, which would make sense given Lockheed Martin’s main line of business. This may then also give us a clue about LH’s potential revenue streams from the Sutherland site.

When you look at the proposed Scottish launch site in Sutherland and start to make comparisons with Kodiak Island it is pretty difficult to determine what Lockheed Martin could realistically gain from the Scottish site that it doesn’t already have access to in Alaska. So, it would definitely need to look at other potential revenue streams and its close military links would indicate this as the lowest hanging fruit available to them.

There were some concerns raised amongst locals that the Sutherland site could have a potential military use.

https://www.northern-times.co.uk/news/fears-mod-wants-to-use-spaceport-179256/

It was also reported back in May that the MoD was urged to invest in the Sutherland site as part of its space defence strategy…

The lesser known Orbex Space company who are quoted as saying they were previously operating in “Stealth mode” made an appearance on the UK scene during the time when the funding for the Sutherland site was announced and received £5.5 million from the overall grant.

There have been suggestions of a military connection with the company’s CEO, Chris Larmour although there is no evidence of this other than a reported 17 year gap in his LinkedIn profile and that he appears to have entered into higher education at the age of 33.

Overall, a lesson from Kodiak Island should be learnt and the operators of the Sutherland site in Scotland should be facing up to economic realities as there is no precedence to suggest their figures can add up and in fact the Kodiak Island example should prove a stark warning to anybody thinking Sutherland can pull off the sort of launch numbers they have suggested, without some additional support from the British military.

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