At Va. Spaceport, Rocket Launches 1,000 Dreams

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va., Dec. 16 -- The sound from the first-stage engine took a moment to travel across the miles of Eastern Shore marsh Saturday as the rocket rose toward a crescent moon fading in the morning sky.

For 15 seconds, the four-stage Minotaur shot upward in silence on a column of white flame amid the scattered pink clouds at daybreak.

Then, as flocks of panicked birds took flight, the rippling thunder of 250,000 pounds of thrust joined the majestic sight of the largest liftoff ever here, a milestone for NASA and the Washington region's new, state-backed commercial spaceport.

Bystanders whooped, rocket executives high-fived and one official dashed out the door of a blockhouse just after liftoff to hear the rumble as the Minotaur streaked from its oceanside launch pad at 7 a.m.

NASA officials said the liftoff could be seen from the District, 150 miles northwest, and there was a sighting reported in Raleigh, N.C.

It was the inaugural launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, the product of a 10-year crusade by Virginia and Maryland, which funded the project, to create a commercial space launch business.

Spaceport workers built a launchpad and 12-story heated rocket gantry for Saturday's flight on land leased from NASA at the space agency's historic Wallops Flight Facility, just outside Chincoteague.

The Minotaur, built by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp., carried an Air Force tactical surveillance satellite called TacSat-2, and a NASA bacteria experiment called GeneSat-1. Both satellites reached orbit and appeared to be performing well, officials said.

It was also the first successful orbital liftoff here in more than 20 years. In the last such attempt, in 1995, the rocket self-destructed.

Officials were elated Saturday.

"It was absolutely great," spaceport director Billie Reed said after the launch. "It was a great culmination to 10 years. . . . When you really saw it lighting up the sky, you said, 'Hallelujah!' "

"We're open for business," he said. "It demonstrates the fact that we are viable, we are real."

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