The gentle sounds of sea birds and marsh creatures wash over the launching pad. In a nearby bunker, Claude Linton peers through a porthole into the early morning Atlantic fog.
Suddenly the view errupts in orange flame and an earth-shaking roar. Linton, the pad supervisor, watches without expression as a 47-foot-long Honest John-Orion rocket streaks skyward.
Although the scene is reminiscent of Cape Kennedy and space shots of another day, at this remote base on the northeast corner of Virginia's Eastern Shore, no one is biting his nails.
There was no celebration in the blockhouse at the latest lift off. No hurrahs. No cigars. No backslapping; only Linton's plaintive growl as he glanced out the porthole and announced: "It blew two manhole covers off the pad. Now we have to clean it all up."
For Linton, a part-time chicken farmer in rural Temperanceville, the countdown atmosphere at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's 35-year-old Wallops Flight Center is as casual as the T-shirts and jeans worn by most of the technicians.
"You'd think this bunch of country boys could never get together and launch a rocket," laughs Robert Duffy, the facility's operations director.
The gray, unpainted projectile that left the base last week carrying scientific measuring equipment into the upper reaches of the atmosphere was the latest of more than 12,000 rockets that the base has launched.
The Wallops Center, actually an old naval air station, fired its first test rocket on July 4, 1945, and still sends between 350 and 400 missiles a year into the heavens. The early days were its salad days, most of the 150 workers agreed.
It launched the first test of the Echo balloon satellite, made the first measurements of the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the earth, and tested the Mercury space capsule with a pair of rhesus monkeys, named "Sam" and "Miss Sam."
Wallops workers can also be credited with the spectacular sodium and barium vapor cloud experiments that have turned the sky reddish for hundreds of miles. Airline pilots and many residents along the East Coast have mistaken the experiments' multi-colored clouds for UFOs and bomb blasts and flooded police switchboards with anxious calls.
"Think of anything that is space-based or space-related and we've probably been part of it," said Robert L. Krieger, 64, director of Wallops since 1948. "This place is a three-ring circus."
Today the base, one of four missile-launching sites operated by NASA, plays a supporting role in the agency's exploration of the universe limited by the size of the rockets it can launch. Most of Wallops' missiles are surplus rockets donated by the armed services, but the scientific push remains the same, from recent analyses of the ash clouds from Mount St. Helens to the recent Honest John-Orion rocket launch. That was a prototype for a series of launches that Norwegian and American scientists are planning this fall to study the electrical properties of the luminous phenomenon known as the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights that is seen in the northern skies.
It was also an example of the type of international launches that has transformed the remote base -- by far the most sophisticated industry on the flat, rural Eastern Shore -- into a temporary home for scientists from the Soviet Union and every non-Communist nation with a space program.
The Italians are remembered with particular fondness.In 1963 and 1964, Italy became one of the 21 nations to send visitors to Wallops when a contigent of 80 specialists and technicians tested satellite launching procedures, said NASA public affairs spokeswoman Joyce Milliner.
And the Italian scientists took more than technology home. "Some were married to some of the local girls around here and they had started families," said Milliner. They "really got to be part of the family here," said Krieger. "We almost had tears in our eyes when they left."
Although it was hardly required of them, the Wallops personnel have made a point of showing off the shore's tiny villages where fishermen still tong for oysters and crabs in a centuries-old way of life as well as the wild ponies of Assateague Island, and flocks of osprey and fishhawks near the base.
"We're proud of our country," Krieger said. "They get to see what country life is like and the [locals] get to see what Pakistanis, Russians and Indians are like. They ain't likely to see them around here otherwise."
Civic associations and clubs and schools in the nearby hamlets of Temperanceville, Atlantic, and what one NASA worker calls "metropolis of the Eastern Shore" Chincoteague (population 4,500) -- are regularly visited by the foreign scientists staying at Wallops.
"The language students get to speak with French and Spanish natives.
They get a real kick out of that," Krieger said.
Not all of the foreign scientists have found Eastern Shore openness easy to accept. In 1976 and 1977, Soviet research ships anchored off Wallops for joint rocket tests that were to compare Eastern and Western meteorological measurements.
"They couldn't believe it when they saw a grandstand full of people about to be allowed to watch their rocket liftoff," Milliner said.On another occasion, Krieger recalled that a Russian "damn near fell off our bus" ogling a new car sales lot packed with 300 shiny autos.
For most of the 750 employes at Wallops, camaraderie is a fact of life, and the base facilitates an unusual communion between high technology professions and the placid ease of country life. Before each launch, a spotter plane checks the sea near the base lest an errant fishing boat slip into an area where the missile might fall.
"We do our best to try not to disrupt the life style of the area," says Wallops director Krieger. "If there is more than a 1 in 100,000 chance of the rocket hitting a fishing boat, then we delay the launch."
Many of the rocket specialists here are military veterans from the Korean conflict and World War II, who have worked at Wallops for 20 years or more, grown up in the small villages that dot the Eastern Shore and want no other way of life.
"With everybody working here for as long as they have, you have a real close-knit group of people here, real friendly," said Ed Matthews, an Eastern Shore native. Matthews has been a Wallops employe for 28 years and taught missile launching to Navy recruits in two wars before joining NASA. "This is country life here. You move about as you please."
Garmon Justis, 54, an air space engineering technician who grew up on the Eastern Shore, lives in Parksley, has worked at Wallops for 21 years, and speaks of another aspect of the area's relationship with the base.
"It's always been good for the economy. It's not like it just came here one day," Justis said. "People here have grown up with Wallops. It's a slow growth area and that's why we like it so much."
Pilot John Adkisson, 32, a newcomer at Wallops for the past two years, said he wanted a mid-Atlantic home, but excluded Washington and Baltimore.
"The congestion turns me off . . . it aggravates me," Adkisson said. "You've got to be psychotic to drive in traffic like that. Wallops is the kind of place you find characterized as a well-kept secret."
With an annual operating budget of about $39 million, Wallops is hardly a minor operation. Recently it branched out into the field of ocean physics and studies that consider surface anomalies caused by gravity and geographical landmarks on the ocean floor.
Wallops soon will be involved in tracking the Space Shuttle, and occupation that may help attract to the base younger technicians who shun the slow life style at a time when Wallops World War II-era specialists are retiring in increasing numbers.
"This is really a unique place to work," said operations director Robert Duffy. "After awhile it just grows on you. You really get engrossed in it."