In early January, a couple of miles from a launchpad on Virginia’s Wallops Island, I gazed eastward and listened to a countdown. The numbers descended, and then in the distance, a rocket lifted silently, as if in slow motion. Ten seconds later, a wave of sound hit me square in the chest with such power that I felt as if a Harley were rumbling through my body.
If watching a launch is on your bucket list, checking it off just got a lot easier. One of Virginia’s best-kept secrets is that you don’t have to travel to Cape Canaveral in Florida or Vandenberg in California to see a launch. NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility is less than 300 miles from Raleigh, about a 4 3/4-hour drive. And Virginia’s two launchpads at the new commercial Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops are about to get busy.
“We’ve become a major player in space launches,” said Dale Nash, executive director of Virginia Space, which owns and operates MARS. He said that the port is now equipped for “medium-class” missions, which can send 10,000 to 15,000 pounds into orbit.
It’s also an exciting time for commercial companies partnering with NASA. Orbital Sciences, based at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport, tested its Cygnus spacecraft from MARS last year, boosted into orbit on its new Antares rocket. And now the company has a $1.9 billion contract for eight International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions through 2016 – the first of which I watched.
Originally scheduled for December, this Cygnus payload contained Christmas presents for the ISS crew, spare parts and 23 student science experiments. But it didn’t make it off the launchpad in time for Christmas.
Launches can be delayed for countless reasons – days, hours or even seconds before liftoff. There’s just a few-minute window during which the launch can occur each day or night, depending on where Earth and the ISS are in orbit, so it isn’t uncommon for spectators to hang out longer than expected when a launch is scrubbed.
But the good news is that there are plenty of ways to kill time in the Wallops area. Best known for their wild ponies, Chincoteague and Assateague islands are a bridge away from the NASA Wallops Visitor Center. You can explore by bike or kayak, take a day trip to Smith Island or hit the Delmarva Wine and Ale Trail.
The December launch was delayed several times – once because of cooling problems on the ISS that required a spacewalk; once for the polar vortex weather; and once for high levels of space radiation. It finally succeeded on Jan. 9 at 1:07 p.m.
The visitor center is about 7 miles north of the launchpad, across the street from the part of the facility where U.S. Navy pilots practice simulated aircraft carrier landings and takeoffs. I learned from the exhibits that Wallops became a test range for rockets and missiles by the end of World War II, and that today, the facility is NASA’s most active launch range.
NASA suggests watching from the visitor center or from the beach on Assateague Island National Seashore/Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Locals tend to scout out the best viewing spots, such as Arbuckle Neck Road or other streets off Atlantic Road.
Launch experiences are different for everyone, but I can’t imagine walking away feeling unmoved. I watched my first launch a decade ago from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a Russian launch facility in Kazakhstan. This time, I was much closer to home and – thanks to more stringent safety regulations – much farther from the launchpad.
Three days later, astronauts aboard the ISS used a robotic arm to capture the Cygnus (as both orbited at 17,500 mph). They unloaded 2,780 pounds of cargo, and they’ll re-pack it with trash from the station. The capsule will head on a trajectory away from the ISS. Its mission complete, the spacecraft will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, and in one last fiery display, it will burn up and disappear over the South Pacific Ocean.