It was an end of the era for NASA when the Space Shuttle Discovery, first flown in 1984, touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 9. The flight of the spacecraft, which had completed a 13-day mission, was its last.
It also underlined the uncertainties of NASA’s future as interest in manned flight flags.
So, could NASA’s Wallops Island facility play a bigger role, especially in commercial space flight?
That’s what Virginia officials are pinning their stars to. The facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore just south of the Maryland border has long been touted as a good locale for commercial space flights. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on the island is being readied for a series of commercial lift-offs. For instance, work is underway on upgrading the entrance to the high-security facility, where visiting car traffic has gone up from 1,200 visits in 2006 to 3,000 last year.
NASA has awarded a $1.9 billion contract to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles to conduct several launches from Wallops over the next several years.
The firm brings together an international smorgasbord of space equipment and expertise from countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Italy, Holland, Germany, Japan and Canada to send up commercial space vehicles. The facility also might get Atlas V rocket boosters to send up equipment to test microgravity in space.
Virginia legislators also have been backing the facility for years with bond sales for expansion and bills to indemnify the facility in case of accidents. NASA is also expanding with new features such as a just-opened rocket integration area.
Still, problems beset commercial space flight just as they have NASA’s. On March 4, Orbital Sciences Corp. announced that the launch of its Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was unsuccessful.
The Virginia facility could be a boon for the state — if we get lift-off.