Virginia aims to claim the next Space Coast

July 9, 2011

They’re rushing to finish the new launch pad. The innkeepers and the ice cream parlors are figuring out how to capitalize on the crowds. And although there isn’t yet enough on display in the visitor’s center to occupy a child on a rainy day, Wallops Island is getting there, gearing up for its turn as the next Space Coast.

The marshy, ear-lobe-shaped land mass southwest of Chincoteague Island is home to NASA’s first rocket-launching site as well as the state-supported Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a scrappy, seven-person operation that is partly run out of an old gas station. With the retirement of the space shuttles, the spaceport is poised to become a major hub of commercial space flight and a tourist attraction to rival the Florida Space Coast at Cape Canaveral. If the fevered predictions of local leaders come true, the expansion of the aerospace industry around Wallops could inject tens of millions of tourist dollars into a regional economy that now relies on an annual wild pony auction and the area’s Mayberry flavor to bring in visitors.

“We really are sitting on a gold mine,” said Donna Bozza, director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission.

Locals got a taste of Space Coast living on June 29, when Orbital Sciences, based in Dulles, sent a military satellite into orbit. The nighttime launch of a 70-foot-high Minotaur rocket had the air of a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Cars clogged back roads, and a record 400 spectators filled the beach at the nearby Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The crowds may get bigger next year when Orbital begins making up for the loss of the shuttle with the first of eight supply runs to the International Space Station. The supply missions are part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA.


Orbital chose to launch out of Wallops mainly because it is smaller and less bureaucratic, said company spokesman Barron Beneski. At Cape Canaveral, military launches have priority, which can lead to unpredictable delays for commercial space companies’ business.

“It gets expensive when you’re not able to go on time,” Beneski said. “In terms of priority at Wallops, we’ll be the priority.”

‘Original Space Coast’

The end of the shuttle program marks the start of a comeback of sorts for Wallops, which some locals have dubbed “the original Space Coast.” The first research rocket lifted off from the island on July 4, 1945 — more than a decade before the creation of NASA. Back then, the only way onto the island was by ferry.

Wallops also lays claim to putting the first female astronaut into orbit — a rhesus monkey named Miss Sam. As NASA began sending humans into space, Wallops was eclipsed by the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral. In the 1980s, Wallops Flight Facility, by then under the management of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, became a popular target for budget cuts, and its workforce shrank from 2,400 to 700. Compare that with the 32,000 employed at the Kennedy Space Center at the peak of the shuttle program in 1991.

Thus began the dark days of Wallops, during which it reinvented itself as a launch site for smaller, lower-cost payloads for academic and government projects.

Then, in the early 1990s, a federal initiative allowed commercial space launches at NASA facilities. That gave Billie Reed, an engineering management professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, the idea of building a spaceport at Wallops.

He went on to found the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and obtained licenses to launch commercial spacecraft into orbit. He also raised enough federal grant money to build a launch pad, which cost about $3.6 million.

But a predicted boom in telecom satellite launches didn’t develop, and eight years passed before a rocket was launched from Pad 0-B. In 2006, the Air Force hired the spaceport to send up two satellites. Then, in 2008, Wallops secured its future in the post-shuttle era when NASA awarded Orbital one of two space station resupply contracts.

The supplies will be delivered by a Taurus II liquid-fuel rocket. The rocket’s parts are made in Ukraine and the United States and assembled at Wallops. A test launch is scheduled for the fall.

Last week, workers were busy assembling the test rocket in a giant white hangar that opened in March. Inside, workers and visitors must wear special blue coats that control the buildup of static electricity, lest they accidentally ignite tons of rocket fuel.

Once the rocket is complete, it will slowly make the one-mile journey to a new launch pad, which is expected to be finished by the end of August. It is being built with special tanks and piping to accommodate liquid-fuel rockets such as the Taurus. (The other launch pad at Wallops is designed for solid-fuel rockets.) The commonwealth provided $26 million in bond financing to build the launch pad, of which Orbital has pledged to repay about $19 million.

Into economic orbit?

Leslie Kovacs, Orbital’s senior manager for off-site operations, is in charge of the assembly of the 131-foot-high Taurus. Tan, with a receding hairline and direct manner, he can be hard to keep up with as he walks briskly around the hangar, batting away errant mosquitoes and explaining how the rocket parts will be “mated” together.

Kovacs is part of a small army of 200 or so Orbital employees and contractors who have descended upon Wallops and the surrounding communities to work on the Taurus II and another NASA contract to launch research rockets. Even amid the usual summer influx of tourists, the newcomers’ presence has been noticed by proprietors of local businesses as varied as motels and doughnut shops. (A study published in February by researchers at Salisbury University in Maryland estimated the spaceport already has an annual economic impact on the Lower Eastern Shore of $188 million.)

On a recent Tuesday, many of the tables inside Wolff’s Sandwich Shoppe, a deli close to the Wallops Flight Facility, were occupied mostly by men wearing the unofficial uniform of rocket scientists and engineers: pressed, short-sleeved shirts and lanyards.

“People who think the rocket business has no impact on Accomack County should come in here at lunchtime,” said the deli’s owner, Ron Wolff, who is a county supervisor.

For owners of mom-and-pop stores, the Taurus II launches have the potential to bring in some much-needed business during the off-season.

Some development-weary residents are cautious, however.

“We’re wondering what the future will bring — good and bad,” said Donna Mason, who owns the Waterside Motor Inn on Chincoteague Island. “You wonder about development and the impact, but most people are seeing it in a positive light so far.”

Bozza, of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission, said she was puzzled after the Minotaur launch when a man on the bus on which she was riding began taking pictures out of the window. The rocket had gone off just after 11 p.m.; now it was midnight. When she asked him what he could possibly be taking pictures of in the dark, he said the traffic.

“Normally at midnight, you could lay in the middle of the street” and not get run over, Bozza said with a laugh.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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