Behind the Scenes: Wallops Island

Inside a government flight center on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that launches unmanned missions into space.

Cape Canaveral in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Texas are more storied, but 3,085-acre Wallops Island—a three-hour drive from DC on Virginia's Eastern Shore—has been a US government flight center for nearly 70 years. Today the launch pad nicely fits NASA's scaled-back, suborbital, medium-range space missions, conducted in partnership with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles.

In this photo, taken inside Wallops's Horizontal Integration Facility, two Antares rockets are prepped for upcoming supply runs to the International Space Station. The "core" first-stage rockets, made in Ukraine, are taken off a ship in Delaware and trucked to Wallops, where the American-made second-stage Aerojet AJ-26 engines, the nose cone, and the payload are added.

For now, Wallops handles only unmanned missions, including Orbital Sciences' current $1.9-billion contract and last September's launch of the LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) that recently circled the moon. But Wallops is likely to grow as a hub for manned launches and space tourism.

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Photograph by Ron Blunt.

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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Posted at 10:51 AM/ET, 05/06/2014 RSS | Permalink | Guides