It IS Rocket Science

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Rendering of the Taurus II launch from Wallops Island at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, courtesy of Orbital Science Corporation; click on photo for larger image.

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, part of the Goddard Space Flight Center, held their 65th Anniversary Open House on June 5th. My husband and I were provided a behind-the-scenes tour by Laurie Naismith, Director of Government Relations & Public Affairs, Sheila Taylor, Construction Manager, and Zig Leszczynski, Director of Operations, for the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, also known as MARS, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

by Missy Schmidt, Communication Manager, Hampton Roads Partnership

This was not your typical open house; after all, as we were told, it IS Rocket Science. Among attendees were Virginia Senator Ralph Northam (6th District) and three NASA Langley interns, i.e., aspiring aerospace engineers, from the Universities of Tennessee, Virginia and Purdue. We also met the Director of the Virginia Space Flight Academy and his family.

As we learned, Wallops was established in 1945 before there was a NASA, under its’ predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is one of the oldest launch sites in the world and now supports scientific research and deployments of orbital and suborbital payloads. Wallops is where NASA first sent monkeys into space in preparation for human space flight and where NASA`s Space Shuttle missions were tracked using their communications, telemetry and radar facilities. It even serves as an emergency landing facility for the Space Shuttle.

Wallops has launched some 16,000 rockets over their 65-year history. Their very earliest flight tests lasted only as long as the coil of wire attached to the rocket being propelled into space. (yes, wired!)

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, owns the property at Wallops Flight Facility with quite the array of tenants. In addition to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), there’s the U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), BaySys Technologies, the Navy’s Surface Combat Systems Center (NAVSEA) and the Naval Air Warfare Center (NAVAIR).

While most of NASA’s ten centers and five facilities nationwide are very mission-specific, NASA Wallops is fairly broad and spans all of NASA’s activities in addition to the Department of Defense (DoD), commercial for-profit companies and academia. While DoD has a presence, there are no “kill missions” operated from Wallops. DoD conducts testing only.

As it was explained, Wallops mission has always been to provide better, cheaper, faster and highly flexible supports to meet the needs of America’s aerospace technology community and science researchers. That customer base today extends to the commercial sector.

Rendering of the Cygnus space vehicle docking with the International Space Station, courtesy of Orbital Science Corporation; click on photo for larger image.

SPACE STATION:  We had a first-hand glimpse into the Wallops space facility’s major operational space system that will be integrated at and launched from the Eastern Shore complex next year.

Orbital Sciences Corporation will launch cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) under a NASA contract beginning in 2011. They displayed a full-scale mock-up of its Cygnus spacecraft which measures 34 feet wide – with the solar arrays deployed – by 18 feet long by 11 feet high. From the mission’s description, this is an ultra-efficient combination of a tractor-trailer and trash truck, delivering supplies to the ISS, picking up its trash and then incinerating on re-entry in the earth’s atmosphere.

Cygnus will be launched on one of the Orbital’s Taurus II rockets home-ported at the MARS at Wallops Island. The next test launch at MARS is tentatively scheduled for the 2010 Thanksgiving weekend.

BALLOONS:  We saw models of what I call “Big B” Balloons; 15 to 20 per year are currently launched by Wallops. Why “Big B”? They fly at altitudes of up to 160,000 feet (commercial airliners fly at 30,000 feet); they stay aloft for durations up to three months; they carry payloads as heavy as a school bus (about 8,000 pounds); they can be as big as the size of the Houston Astrodome or about 195 Goodyear blimps. Best of all, they’re recyclable (they come back to Earth via parachute) and about 1/100th the cost of satellites.

ROCKETS:  Wallops is the home of NASA’ Sounding Rockets program, launching about 20 to 30 per year. These are “research rockets” which carry instruments designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during a sub-orbital flight.

MILITARY:  We learned about military missions including one that brought to mind bomb-sniffing dogs in space, i.e., tracking satellites were sent into orbit that could accurately detect bomb-making components, not just actual bombs, within a very small area on the ground.

Part of the military mission is to launch missiles at naval ships off the Atlantic coast, so the U.S. Navy can practice shooting them down. A clear ocean is most important in these tests: With a missile traveling at Mach 2 or 3 (that’s twice or thrice the speed of sound and the actual number is classified), quite a “rooster tail” or plume of water is created. To avoid incidents, Wallops has a “big, red button” on standby should the naval ship miss the target.

Sound wave-proof testing of antennas and other equipment in some very alien-looking environments; courtesy of NASA.

FLIGHT:  We learned about conventional flight research, too. For example, Wallops can flood a runway so plane landings and take-offs may be tested safely. Noise testing is frequently done.

MISSION CONTROL:  The Chief of the Range and Mission Management Office showed us the Range Control Center at Wallops, which is an approximately ¾ scale of the Kennedy Space Center’s control room with all of the same technology. With Wallops’ major concern being safety, they monitor air traffic and the surrounding oceans to ensure clear launches. And, Wallops is a primary weather-monitoring site, collecting data from around the world. They map erosion and climate change. They control UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for customers.

Wallops’ Control Center logged 182 active airspace days in 2009, and more big launches (such as satellites and the Cygnus) are anticipated in the future.

The Wallops Range Control Center; courtesy of NASA.

The Wallops’ mobile Control and Launch Center, which basically fits into a tractor-trailer, may be deployed to the most remote location around the world. The Wallops Flight Facility is truly outstanding; it is the only NASA location with an entire capability, including fabrication (i.e., machining) along with flight systems.

THE ISLAND:  The seawall at Wallops Island, the actual launching area of Wallops Flight Facility, protects approximately $1 billion of assets. The top of the Aegis Surface Combat Systems Center on the island looks as if the actual top of an aircraft carrier was plucked from the sea and placed atop the building.

POTENTIAL:  So what does NASA’s facility on the Eastern Shore mean for Hampton Roads and for Virginia? There is huge potential for:

  • New residents:  About 1,600 people, predominantly living in Virginia, are employed at the Wallops Flight Facility today;
  • The commercial sector:  With the current Obama administration’s commitment to the mission of NASA and its future, plans have been outlined for federal spending to bring more private companies into space exploration, especially following the soon-to-end space shuttle program; and
  • Tourism, which has already captured the attention of Virginia Beach:  The Eastern Shore is just scratching the surface of what Florida’s Space Coast has by integrating the cruise industry, the Kennedy Space Center and its launches, beaches and nature.

Schedule a visit to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. As human space flight wanes, Wallops is sure to be the future of NASA’s space programs and an economic boon for Virginia’s Eastern Shore.