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Virginia's space industry gets a boost

Date published: 4/23/2013

PONIES, the beach, oysters, vacation: Those are what most people associate with Chincoteague. Now it's clear "rockets" should be added to the list.

Not that rockets are newcomers to Virginia's Eastern Shore. In fact, Wallops Island, just five miles east of Chincoteague, has been launching missiles since 1945, when NASA's predecessor agency began sending test rockets skyward from the site. Early in the 1960s, before human astronauts took flight, two rhesus monkeys launched from Wallops (and safely recovered) tested the practice.

On Sunday, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility marked another milestone: the successful launch of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket, the biggest craft ever to lift off from there. Designed to ferry supplies to the International Space Station, the practice Antares launch was not only a boost for Wallops and for Orbital, a Dulles-area company, but for the entire state as well.

The Antares rocket lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport pad at the NASA facility. MARS is managed by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which the General Assembly created in 1995 to promote commercial space activity in the state. The MARS pad is one of only four U.S. facilities approved for space launches, and the success of the Antares places the facility--and the commonwealth--in a competitive position in the growing space industry.

Orbital won a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to make eight deliveries to the ISS. Its next launch, scheduled for this summer, will be another test to see if its delivery vehicle can successfully dock with the ISS, delivering about 1,600 pounds of supplies. On the way back, it will carry garbage--serving as a flying incinerator as it re-enters the atmosphere. Assuming that test flight goes well, Orbital's eight contracted launches will start soon after.

Suzanne Taylor, director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, said that Sunday's launch, which had been delayed twice, was "most exciting." The rocket lifted off slowly, its fiery tail creating a beautiful scene enjoyed by those who had come to the area specifically to watch the event. "It's a new day for Chincoteague," said Mrs. Taylor, who expects the town to benefit from additional tourists for subsequent launches.

It's a new day for Virginia as well. Known as the home of one of the finest deep water ports on the East Coast, adding "spaceport" to the state's resume greatly enhances it. This successful Antares launch, says Dale Nash, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, means that "We are getting into the big time." Not bad for a little barrier island off Virginia's Eastern Shore.