Feature Stories

To Infinity and Beyond: How Delmarva Reaches the Stars!


“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”  -JFK, September 12, 1962

When those words were uttered to a crowd at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, President Kennedy was trying to yield support to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during a time when the Soviet Union and America were in a political Space Race. The landscape has changed since those words in the 60s, but the same idea continues at one of NASA’s original facilities, Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.


Early image of the Wallops Site.

Shortal, Joseph Adams

Since its inception in 1945, the facility has seen many changes and face-lifts over the years. The most recent one came in the early 2000s with the arrival of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. This allowed for contracts to be made with private company, Orbital Sciences. They, along with fellow private company, Space-X, have been running missions to resupply the International Space Station for the past several years.

Space-X is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us. We welcome today's decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species. Elon Musk, Space-X CEO

Wallops has been home to Orbital launches, along with Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with Space-X also using Vandenberg and Kennedy Flight Center in Florida. For several years, the United States has been using the Russian government and their Soyuz rockets to get American astronauts to the International Space Station. Things are going to change in a big way in the very near future.

Space-X, along with two other companies were involved in a bidding war to get a new NASA contract for manned space flights to the International Space Station. The idea is that NASA did not need to be the main way for America to go to space. Instead, use the resources of other companies and offer subsidiaries for helping America reach for the stars again.

When asked about the contract, Wallops Deputy Director Bruce Underwood said that they were well aware of the situation. “We knew that the three companies involved with bidding for the contract had plans to build a new spaceport. So, we were not worried about that contract. NASA used to control all the launch ports, where they were told where they would launch. We knew that the day would come when space tourism and technology would allow other companies outside of the government to take over space exploration.”

Space-X was awarded the contract, but in the language of the contract, a new spaceport is to be built in south Texas. Space-X declined to be interviewed for this piece, but I was given language for the particulars of the new contract. The new 2.4 Billion dollar project will use Space-X’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle to launch 7 astronauts into space and to the International Space Station. Elon Musk, CEO & Chief Designer of Space-X is quoted in saying, “Space-X is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us.  We welcome today’s decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.”

Underwood’s focus for Wallops is continuing doing what the facility has been doing best. “Wallops has been the place to be if you want to work with the future of technology,” says Underwood. Some of this technology involves other private companies at the facility. “We are currently working with Orbital and other companies to get commercial work to space. This has been our focus since our inception on the eastern shore and will continue to be our push.”

The Future of Wallops

Orbital are currently contracted for 8 Antares rocket launches. The launch on October 28th will mark the third of these missions. They are slated to run until late 2016.

Another big focus will be weather and climate studies. The Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) mission is a big study being conducted by NASA on the way that tropical cyclones develop and how the environment around the storms are conducive to the strengthening and weakening of storms.


2010 Aerial Photo of Wallop's Flight Facility

This project is beginning to wrap up, but several new missions and studies are getting ready to be started right at the flight facility. “Climate change and sea level rise are the hot topics in science and they (the facility) are doing their part to collect all the information available. This information will enable scientists to get the data they need to complete new studies and allow us to be ahead of the curve,” says Underwood.

In general, the mood at Wallops is very positive and optimistic. “The future is bright and optimistic. The projects and work done here are important for the direction that they agency is moving. The work we do here is integral to farther ourselves for all human spaceflight. We hope that another big contract is on the way to the facility. In the meantime, we are in high demand and there is no reason to believe that things here at the facility will continue to grow. The question is: how face and how large will they grow,” says Underwood.

Launches at Wallops

Many things need to go right in order to view such a spectacular launch from Wallops. Many things that could go wrong are from the technical side of things. For instance, a launch was scrubbed due to a hose coming loose at the wrong time. Another delay was caused due to a computer malfunction.

These are things that are inevitable, but can be avoided in the future. One thing that NASA and Orbital cannot control, the weather.

“In the last three years, we have had pretty good luck with the weather set-ups at the time of launch preparations,” says Adam Thomas, Meteorologist at NASA. “We have only had one launch scrubbed that I can recall that was caused by the weather. Usually, the plug was pulled a certain length of time away from a launch.

One instance was in the planning of the latest launch of an Antares rocket in October. They were scheduled to launch from the flight facility on October 24th. The first attempted was rescheduled thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo.

HurricaneGonzaloA lot of folks probably read that and went, “Didn’t Gonzalo miss the United States?” It did, but it did not spare Bermuda. Due to the timing of the hurricane, tracking stations used by NASA to watch a rocket go into space were directly affected by the Hurricane. Those stations were closed and required time to be reset after the hurricane passed through the island.

So many guidelines have to be met for a mission to actually be cleared to launch with regards to weather. “The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has a criteria that must be met prior to a launch at a weather facility. Anything from wind to lightning to convective clouds and smoke plumes could cause a launch to be scrubbed.”

Winds are a tricky thing to determine here on Delmarva, with all the different wind shifts and speeds you may see in a given day. The wind criteria for a safe launch vary with the direction. Thomas tells me, “An eastern wind needs to be under 24 knots. Say the wind is from the west or northwest, our constraint goes up to 29 knots.”

Something as simple as a cumulus cloud in the convective summer season could cause grave concerns heading to launch. “A cumulus cloud that builds up too quickly and too high into the atmosphere could make us consider pulling the plug on a launch,” says Thomas.

Preparations for launch happen months in advance. With the weather, you can only look at the data so far in advance. “We start to look at the forecast a week or two in advance of the launch. We are watching weather patterns and starting to determine how things might play out in the coming weeks,” says Thomas. “The detailed forecasts start about 3 days from the launch, or at t- 72 hours. We will then update the forecast every 24 hours at t-48 hours and at t-24 hours.” At the t-24 hour window, this is when the meteorologists will give a probability of violation report, or the likelihood of a launch to occur based on weather conditions.


Cumulus Clouds and Weather Balloons Play a Huge Part in a Launch

Once this report has been finalized, they will issue a launch ready report and produce a weather briefing. “It’s in this meeting with all involved with the mission that we will break down the forecast and give them a detailed look at what we believe conditions will be like at the given launch time,” says Thomas.

Two other weather reports are issued inside of the 24-hour running clock, at t-7 hours and at t-1 hour 45 minutes. It will be in this time that meteorologists will be fed a lot of real-time data. Thomas says, “We have a met-ops organization that releases balloons continuously during the countdown time. We look at this data the minute it is available to be able to tweak the forecasts readily.”

This will continue right up until launch time when the vehicle has left the launch pad at Wallops.

How Did We Get Here?

It only seems like the Wallops Flight Facility has been in the news in the last 10 years, thanks to the expansion of the commercial rocket. The facility itself has been a staple in the development of rockets since the start of the Space Race with the Russians.

Wallops Island has been a proving ground years before NASA was even established. During the days of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), under the direction of the Langley Research Center, a rocket test site was established on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1945. The site was designated to conduct high-speed aerodynamics research.


US Rocket Facilities

The first project was called the Pilotless Aircraft Research Station. It was in this time period where much advancement was made in understanding how rockets would move through the atmosphere and the transfer from heat.

The Tiamat rocket program was the first major rocket launches from a makeshift launch pad that was established during the time when a permanent launch pad was being discussed in committees in Congress. After a few smaller rockets were launched to test radar trackers and sightlines from the island, the first Tiamat rocket was launched on July 4th, 1945. The first Tiamat launched from the site was considered a “dummy” rocket. It was called a dummy since there was no guidance system within the rocket. The rocket was launched solely to see if it would fly and that the booster sequence was correct. The first launch had issues, where the booster did not separate properly. Four days later, the second launch was successful with separation, but would cause a failure of the gyroscopes and forced the rocket to tumble.

The unmanned program would continue until 1958, when Congress established NASA and would absorb all of the NACA facilities into the new program. It would be during this time that Wallops would become a separate facility operation under NASA in Washington D.C.

As the civilian space program began to take shape, Wallops started to work on the rockets that would take man into space. After the announcement of Project Mercury, work began at the facility on everything that it would take to launch man into orbit around the earth.

Wallops involvement in the project was to work on the escape system during launch. They would perform these experiments with the Little Joe rocket from the Flight Facility. The tests was to simulate max-q, a term referred to where the air pressure against the spacecraft peaked and made the separation of the rocket itself difficult.

The first test of the system was to occur August 21, 1959. It was failed launch since the rocket let 30 minutes prior to launch. An unexpected trigger of the launch escape system caused an electrical leak. The first successful launch of Little Joe occurred October 5, 1959. This successful launch lead to the first monkey being launched into space with the Little Joe system in December of 1959, using Sam the Rhesus monkey.

These tests would continue at Wallops until the final successful launch in April of 1961. This set the stage for the first man to be sent up into space and the Wallops Flight Facility to move on into its next projects.

Explorer 9 was a project that was instituted to study the mid to upper levels of the sky, before getting to space. It was a project that required a bigger rocket. They used the Scout X-1 rocket to launch it into orbit in February of 1961. This would also mark the first time that a rocket reached orbit from the Wallops Flight Facility.

This is one of the greatest opportunities for engineers that are engaged in building flight experiments and working on new ways for humans to explore things and ideas we have never seen before. Bruce Underwood

Wallops would also be integral in the race to the moon. They would be the test facility of the heat shield used on the underneath of the Apollo capsule. Without a solid answer to re-entry, the astronauts would burn up as they entered the atmosphere at high speeds. These launches would take the rockets up through the atmosphere and allow for re-entry procedures to be tested. It would also allow for the capsule to be recovered and continuing work until the final product.

Work with the Scout rocket continued for a prolonged period of time. They would have annual launches from the pads until 1994. Prior to the commercialization of the pad, the last launch to reach orbit in space from Wallops would occur in 1985.

During the last little bit of the Scout rocket era, Bruce Underwood came in right out of college in 1981. He has seen the vast improvements at the facility. People don’t realize the amount of work that went on for years and years. “We were so under the radar because none of the projects we were working on had a “wow” factor. We could have been working on one hundred different missions at any given time,” says Underwood.

During the years when Wallops was not launching big time rockets, the facility was still doing integral work. “Throughout the 90s, we had many missions using the Pegasus rocket system.” This rocket was launched from a plane that took it to a high altitude, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 feet. It allowed for missions in low earth orbit to be conducted.

Other programs would use the Minotaur rocket system to get objects into space, as well. “ The early 2000s brought in those rockets, which were essentially old ICBM’s (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) and were converted to take satellites and experiments up into space that way,” said Underwood.

In July of 2003, then Governor Robert Ehrlich of Maryland and Governor Mark Warner of Virginia signed an agreement to develop a commercial spaceport at the Wallops Flight Facility. It would be funded and developed with the help of funding from federal, state, and private sectors. Known as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, it includes two launch pads for different size rocket launches.

Orbital Sciences took the reigns at the sight, rebuilding one of the pads completely to fit their advanced Antares rocket. It would be a project farther down the road. The first rocket ever launched by Orbital at the new Spaceport would be a Minotaur rocket from pad 0B on December 16th, 2006. It was the signal of a thing to come for the sight. Since then, 10 successful launches had left from the new spaceport. The missions ranged from satellite establishments, to testing and implementation of resupply missions to the International Space Station, to sending a satellite into lunar orbit.

The plan is to continue these missions for the near future, setting up the idea that the Wallops Flight Facility will be an integral part of the United States continuing effort to study and exploration of space and beyond.  “This is one of the greatest opportunities for engineers that are engaged in building flight experiments and working on new ways for humans to explore things and ideas we have never seen before.”


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