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After delays, Rocket Lab is set for launch from NASA’s Wallops spaceport

The blast-off may be visible from the D.C. area and along the Mid-Atlantic

The Rocket Lab facility under construction in 2020 amid preparations to launch satellites from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

After a years-long wait, one of the most successful space start-ups since SpaceX is set to launch a rocket from the Eastern Shore of Virginia on Sunday evening, an effort to turn a little-known launch site into a flourishing space portal on the Eastern Seaboard.

The two-hour launch window opens at 6 p.m., giving people in D.C. and the Mid-Atlantic region a chance to view the fiery trail of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket as it lifts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The facility near Chincoteague has been around for decades and recently has been the home of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which flies cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.

But about three years ago, Rocket Lab moved in, adding a commercial company to what Virginia hopes will become a flourishing roster of space companies operating at the site.

While other small rocket companies have struggled to get off the ground, Rocket Lab has launched 32 missions since 2017 from its facility in New Zealand. And a few years ago, the Long Beach, Calif.-based company started looking for a launch site in the United States. It considered the Kennedy Space Center but chose Wallops because room was available to build a manufacturing and processing site.

“KSC is an amazing range, but I think everybody has to agree, it’s pretty busy,” Peter Beck, the chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a call with reporters this week. “Whereas we can achieve almost the same trajectories out of Virginia here. The range is not nearly as busy, and there’s a lot of a lot of room to grow.”

With its small size, just under 60 feet tall, Electron is designed to carry small satellites on short notice. That is a capability that is of particular interest to the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. It is another reason that Rocket Lab chose Wallops; it’s only a little over a three-hour drive from Washington.

Sunday’s launch is intended to put into orbit three satellites manufactured by HawkEye 360, a Herndon, Va.-based company that operates satellites able to detect radio frequencies. Its system was able to detect GPS interference in Ukraine, for example, the company said.

In addition to launching Electron, a relatively small rocket, the company plans to fly its much larger Neutron rocket from Wallops. That rocket is intended to be reusable — after launching to space it would turn around and fly back to its launchpad. Beck said the company would attempt to land Neutron on its first flight, now scheduled for sometime in 2024.

“At this point, we will attempt to both ascend and descend, given that’s what the whole stage is designed to do,” he said. “It’d be kind of like taking off an airplane and not attempting to land it.”

The launch now set for Sunday was delayed as the company and NASA and other federal agencies worked to certify what is known as the automatic flight termination system, which destroys the rocket in case it starts to veer off course and threaten populated areas.

“It’s been a long road,” Beck said. But now “the rocket is ready. It’s on the pad. The team is ready, and it’s time to fly.”

Eventually, Rocket Lab would like to launch rockets as often as once a month from Wallops. During the briefing this week, Beck said the company is “looking forward to a pretty rapid launch cadence out of Virginia right off the bat. There’s been a number of launches that are kind of pent up to be launched out of Virginia. So we’re very excited to release the floodgates on that.” But he didn’t say how often the company expects to launch next year.

Over the past couple of decades, Virginia has invested about $250 million in what it calls the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops. NASA also has made investments, including $15.7 million for a mission operations control center. The hope is that the facility and the region continue to grow.

“We think that with the advent of the Electron with this launch cadence, it’s an opportunity for folks living in the Mid-Atlantic region, from Virginia Beach to Philadelphia, to come to launches,” said David Pierce, the director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. “And we expect that’s going to have a dramatic impact on the local economy.”