pads for rocket launches are located on the southern tip of the barrier island, not at the Wallops Main Base or on the mainland
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), North Wallops Island Unmanned Aerial Systems Airstrip Environmental Assessment
Wallops Flight Facility, on Wallops Island in Accomack County near Chincoteague, was developed as a rocket testing site at the end of World War II to support the research at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now Langley Research Center) in Hampton.
Wallops was a competitor of Cape Canaveral in the late 1950's
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Little Joe on launcher at Wallops Island (1959)
Atlantic Warning Areas defined by the US Navy make Wallops an attractive site for testing rockets now
Source: US Navy, Atlantic Test Ranges
Langley needed a field station to test guided missiles outside of wind tunnels, and initially considered Cape Lookout, North Carolina. That site was close to Langley and the Marine base at Cherry Point, and the undeveloped oceanfront offered the needed 50-mile test range free from interference so scientists could observe missiles from shore.
The Marines opposed sharing the area with Langley's research scientists and the barrier islands were difficult to reach, so Langley went with its second choice: Wallops Island. It was also near an existing military facility that could provide logistical support, the Chincoteague Naval Auxiliary Air Station (today's "Main Base" at Wallops Flight Facility). The barrier island, named after John Wallop (who had patented the land in 1672), could be accessed by a 2-mile causeway.
NASA's launch facility could have been located in North Carolina, if the Marines at Cherry Point had welcomed the scientists in 1945
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), (Figure 3)
Wallops offered undeveloped shoreline for tracking test flights of rockets
Source: NASA, (Figure 5)
There were four choices for a test range near the Chincoteague Naval Auxiliary Air Station. Chincoteague and Assateague islands were rejected because test flights would cross Chincoteague Inlet, which was also used by local boats. A site on the mainland near the air base would have required purchasing too much land or flown too close to the clubhouse of the Wallops Island Association hunt club, so Langley set up operations on the barrier island.
Langley set up initial facilities on the barrier island at Wallops, and modern space launch pads are located there now (separate from the main air base)
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Wallops Station and the Creation of an American Space Program
The US Navy was already planning to use the northern half of Wallops Island to test ordnance. The hunt club was forced to sell, and Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory acquired 1,000 acres on the southern half for its Auxiliary Flight Research Station.
The first rocket was launched on July 4, 1945. Temporary structures housed people and experiments for 18 months. Boats brought people and supplies from a dock on Assawoman Creek until 1958, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created and a causeway was finally constructed.1
Initially, conditions at Wallops Island were primitive:2
multiple sites were examined before the launch facility was located on a barrier island where a seawall would be required to protect infrastructure
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), A New Dimension - Wallops Island Flight Test Range: The First Fifteen Years (Figure 4)
Wallops offers a wide range of launch trajectories, with Outer Banks of North Carolina the closest limit to the south
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Wallops Flight Facility
NASA tested the aerodynamics of different rockets at Wallops, including the escape system and heat shield for Mercury space flight capsules. NASA even launched a rhesus monkey on a suborbital flight in 1960, testing for Project Mercury flights that sent the first American astronauts into orbit.
launch of suborbital rocket from Wallops Island
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Rocket Report (Third Quarter, 2010)
Under NASA, Wallops focused on enabling low-cost aerospace-based science and technology research. In the 1950's there were proposals to develop it into an alternative to Cape Canaveral, and Explorer IX was launched into orbit on February 16, 1961. However, NASA chose to commit to its main facility in Florida. Until 2013 almost all launches from Wallops were suborbital.
NASA focused on launching sub-orbital rockets from Wallops until 2013
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NASA Successfully Launches Suborbital Rocket from Wallops with Student Experiments
Many weather "sounding" rockets released brightly-colored chemicals at high elevation to reveal the pattern of wind currents near the edge of space. The rockets are named after the nautical practice to take measurements, using a weighted line dropped into the water to "sound" its depth.3
rockets launched from Wallops release chemicals to create clouds that reveal high-altitude wind currents, helping to refine computer models for predicting weather
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth Observatory, A Barrage of a Launch
NASA placed Goddard Space Flight Center in charge of Wallops Flight Facility in 1982.
In 1995, the Virginia General Assembly (after proposals were developed by Old Dominion University's engineering program) created the Virginia Space Flight Center. The state wanted to create a commercial spaceport supporting orbital as well as suborbital launches at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, to stimulate economic development in Accomack County and throughout Virginia.
The 1995 launch of a Conestoga rocket failed, ending the first attempt to establish commercial use at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.4
Infrastructure at Wallops is sufficient now to launch satellites to the International Space Station over 200 miles above the earth, and even to reach the moon. The first attempt to reach the moon was successful. NASA's launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) in September, 2013. The mission was to study the lunar atmosphere and help determine if dust will affect future missions.
LADEE launch disturbed a local frog, briefly...
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, LADEE Frog Photobomb
The LADEE launch from Pad 0B was only the second NASA mission to the moon that was not launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. For LADEE, Wallops used a Minotaur rocket with an upper stage to carry a satellite the size of a car into orbit around the moon. The Minotaur rocket, a converted Air Force MX Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), was not powerful enough to put the satellite into a direct orbit to the moon. Instead, LADEE got a gravity assist by circling the earth three times before reaching lunar orbit.
Reusing the old ICBM's reduced the cost compared to using a new Atlas or Delta rocket. Strategic arms limitation treaties between the United States and Russia restrict the number of sites from which refurbished ICBM's can be launched to Vandenberg Air Force Base (California), Kodiak Launch Complex (Alaska), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Florida) and Wallops Flight Facility (Virginia).5
the first satellite launched from Wallops to the moon was the size of a car
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA Prepares for First Virginia Coast Launch to Moon
The Virginia Space Flight Center initially targeted the "smallsat" business (satellites in low-earth orbits for communications and remote-sensing), plus reusable launch vehicles for passenger and cargo transportation into space. It sought to become the launch site for VentureStar, a now-cancelled replacement for the space shuttle.6
In 2004, Virginia put two members from Maryland on the board of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and renamed the launch site, converting the Virginia Space Flight Center at at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility into the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). The spaceport is located close to Virginia's border with Maryland, but partnering with Maryland was more than just a "we are neighbors" decision. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland manages NASA operations at Wallops Island, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has managed missions to Pluto. More importantly, the Maryland delegation was influential in shaping funding and policy for NASA.
Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski played such a key role that NASA's director of the Wallops Flight Facility called her the site's "patron saint." NASA's Administrator described her "as our own supernova." She supported Federal appropriations for a facility in Virginia, totaling $160 million between 2009-206, because commercial space operations at Wallops would have regional impacts that benefitted Maryland as well as Virginia. Senator Mikulski's office calculated that it supported 1,525 jobs on the Eastern Shore, plus others at Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland.7
Federal policy had been erratic on privatizing portions of NASA, such as the LANDSAT imaging satellites, and stimulating commercial launch capacity. Cancellation of the space shuttle significantly increased opportunities for commercial space flights to supply the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Virginia near Dulles airport, won nearly $2 billion in Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts with NASA. Orbital Sciences Corporation began to launch Cygnus spacecraft on Antares rockets (formerly called Taurus II rockets) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.8
Pad 0A at Wallops Island
Source: Orbital Sciences Corporation, Wallops Flight Facility
The two-stage Antares rocket is the largest planned for Wallops, where 16,000 launches had already occurred by 2013. The state of Virginia built Pad 0A especially for the Antares to make eight supply missions to the International Space Station, and Virginia is paid $1.5 million for each launch. The Cygnus capsule on top of the Antares rocket is designed to carry a maximum of 14,000 pounds of cargo - but not astronauts - on each flight to the International Space Station, 260 miles above the earth.
In April, 2013, Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched a test flight of the Antares rocket. That was followed by a launch in September 2013 of a "demonstration mission" that successfully carried 1,300 pounds of cargo to the space station, then a January 2014 launch with a full commercial load of 2,780 pounds - including Christmas gifts, which arrived late after the launch was delayed by repairs on the International Space Station, then by cold weather at Wallops, and finally by unusual space weather (high levels of radiation).
first test flight of Antares rocket from Wallops, April 2013
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Successful Launch for Antares
Six months later, Orbital launched another Antares rocket from Wallops with another Cygnus capsule carrying 3,669 pounds up to the International Space Station. The launches established a new role for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport as an on-ramp to support humans flying in orbit. Only two spaceports in the United States (including Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, used by Orbital's competitor SpaceX) send supply missions to the space station.9
the International Space Station's robotic arm captures the Cygnus capsules launched from Wallops
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), The Cygnus space freighter approaches the space station
Virginia used $100 million in bond funding to finance construction of the new $150 million spaceport at Wallops, but still needed additional funding from Orbital to cover cost overruns during pad construction. The company paid Virginia $42 million in 2010 to buy hardware at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, and the state used the funding to upgrade Pad0A to allow launches of liquid-fueled rockets (rather than the solid-fueled rockets used at the other pad). The payment was essentially a loan; Virginia committed to re-purchase the hardware later after the General Assembly had provided new funding.
After repurchasing over $25 million of equipment, in 2012 Virginia's Secretary of Transportation refused to repurchase the Transporter Erector Launcher used to move Antares rockets to the launch pad. Virginia argued the $16 million Transporter Erector Launcher could only be used by Orbital's Antares rocket, and initially refused to accept a mediator's decision that supported Orbital's claim.
The company finally sued the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority in 2013. The two litigants settled the suit out of court in 2014, and Virginia bought back the Transporter Erector Launcher at an undisclosed price.
the Transporter Erector Launcher transports Antares rockets from the assembly building to the pad
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), UPDATE: Antares Launch Scheduled Jan. 8
the Transporter Erector Launcher also places the rocket in a vertical position on Pad 0A
Source: Orbital Sciences Corporation, ISS Commercial Resupply Services Mission (Orb-2) Image Gallery
However, the third Antares launch from Wallops on October 28, 2014 was a catastrophic failure. The rocket was destroyed six seconds after liftoff when just above the pad. The massive explosion damaged the Transporter Erector Launcher and other components at the pad, including the lightning towers that surrounded it.
launch failure at Pad 0A on October 28, 2014, damaged the Transporter Erector Launcher that Virginia had re-purchased
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA Statement Regarding Oct. 28 Orbital Sciences Corp. Launch Failure and
NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Completes Initial Assessment after Orbital Launch Mishap
Orbital responded by contracting with other companies launch its resupply missions to the International Space Station in 2015, and not returning to Wallops until 2016.
the October 28, 2014 launch failure was dramatic - but the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority repaired the pad and stayed in the space launch business
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Orbital ATK Antares Launch
Orbital's insurance policy was not expected to cover the estimated $20 million in damage, and Virginia had self-insured Pad0A. The state government was in a severe budget crunch when the explosion damaged the launch pad, and there was no obvious source of funding for repairs. The future of commercial space flight at Wallops was placed into question.
The US Congress came to the rescue at the end of 2014 by including $20 million for repairs in the 2015 budget. It passed when Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland was serving as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was on the Budget Committee. The repair of the facility and the restoration of Orbital's capacity to supply the International Space Station was justified in part when SpaceX had its rocket fail eight months after the Wallops explosion.10
The barrier island is at risk of flooding. The rocket pads and other structures are within the "100-year flood" zone, where there is a 1% risk of flooding every year. Special Flood Hazard Areas are mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to define risks. Structures in the VE zone are predicted to experience high velocity water with wave effects three feet or greater. Structures in the AE zone also have a 1% risk of flooding, but wave effects are predicted to be less than three feet.
Wallops Island infrastructure is in flood zone AE and VE
Source: Accomack County, AccoMap
the Corps of Engineers pumped sand from offshore to build a wider beach to protect Wallops Island infrastructure
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District Image Gallery
the Corps of Engineers extended a seawall about 1,500 feet in 2011 to protect the launch pads at the southern end of Wallops Island
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, 110308-A-OI229_002 and 110308-A-OI229_015
Competition for the commercial spaceflight business is intense. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration had eight licensed Launch Site Operators, including one in Oklahoma. By 2020, the Federal agency had licensed a dozen sites.
New Mexico funded construction of the 27 square miles Spaceport America near the White Sands Missile Range, committing over $200 million in local and state taxes to attract companies that intend to provide private-sector launches for passengers as well as cargo. Virgin Galactic moved from Mohave, California and based its commercial space tourism flights in New Mexico.
location of licensed spaceports in 2012
Source: Federal Aviation Administration
location of licensed spaceports in 2020
Source: Federal Aviation Administration, Spaceport License
Virginia Galactic chose to use a plane to carry a rocket-propelled capsule to 40,000 feet before launching it on flights that would quality as "trips into space." After the plane released the capsule, pilots in the capsule fire a rocket motor to climb past the threshold defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as space vs. atmosphere. Though the international boundary (Karman Line) is 100 kilometers (over 62 miles), the Federal Aviation Administration classifies flights exceeding 80 kilometers (50 miles) as "space flights."
Richard Branson claimed to be the first billionaire in space when he was in a capsule that rocketed over 53 miles high on July 11, 2021. Executives in Blue Origin, a rival space tourism company founded by Jeff Bezos, claimed that only trips which cross the Karman Line qualify as a "space flight."
billionaires squabbled in 2021 if "space" flights had to reach at least 62 miles abve the earth's surface
Source: Twitter, Blue Origin (July 9, 2021)
Bezos flew above the 62-mile high Karman Line boundary in a New Shephard capsule on July 20, 2021. The crew spent four minutes in weightlessness, but did not go into orbit before the capsule parachuted back to land in Texas. The booster rocket also landed successfully, back at Launch Site One in West Texas. That facility was a test site; Blue Origin planned to use Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral for its commercial operations.
Blue Origin's test site was in West Texas (red X), but it planned for commercial operations to use Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In 2023, Virgin Galactic launched tourists six times from Spaceport America. However, the company experienced difficulty in raising enough cash to stay in business and announced it would suspend flights in mid-2024. Spaceport officials searched constantly for additional tenants other than Virgin Galactic. A local county commissioner said:11
Plans for the California Spaceport, with a commercial launch site next to Vandenberg Air Force Base, ended when the California Space Authority dissolved in 2011 after experiencing funding shortfalls during the recession and tight environmental constraints. However, California still has the very active Mohave Air and Space Port, where the XCOR Lynx capsule is being developed as a "space Corvette" to carry two people into space.
In addition, SpaceX has used Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Air Force Base. SpaceX planned for its Falcon Heavy rocket launches from Vandenberg to compete with the dominant NASA and military contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which launch Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Vandenberg is used for satellites that orbit over the poles for earth observation and communications, but not for missions that place satellites in orbit over the equator or for missions to the International Space Station.12
Florida has created a Space Florida program to maintain that state's primacy, and make Florida the "Place for Space." North of Cape Canaveral in Jacksonville, Space Florida is developing Cecil Spaceport at an old military airport closed through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. It plans to compete with the White Sands Missile Range for sub-orbital launches of tourists.
Florida faced competition for commercial launch services in its latitude, where the earth's rotation close to the equator provides extra speed for rockets. The General Assembly in Georgia passed the Georgia Spaceflight Act in 2017 to create Spaceport Camden, on a site where Thiokol Corporation tested rocket engines in the 1960's. SpaceX considered the Camden, Georgia site before choosing its Texas location.
In 2022, soon after the Federal Aviation Administration issued a license for Spaceport Camden, local voters forced a referendum that blocked purchase of the 4,000-acre site. At the time, less than half of the US spaceports with a Federal license had launched rockets for paying customers.
Spaceport Camden cited its advantages, hoping to attract launch companies to use the Georgia site rather than competitors
Source: Spaceport Camden, Why Camden
by 2022, Camden Spaceport had received a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration
Source: Federal Aviation Administration, Spaceport License
SpaceX developed the Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas initially for testing its Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle. In 2020, SpaceX requested a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch rockets from Boca Chica into orbit, and potentially to Mars. It planned to build two launch pads on land, plus use two former oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Starships assembled on land would be launched on short suborbital flights to the floating platforms for launch into orbit.
Georgia's vision for Spaceport Camden was not tied to a single company. It wanted:13
Antares rocket carrying cargo from Wallops Island to the International Space Station on July 13, 2014
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Island Access (July 2014)
NASA plans to continue to launch humans into space from the Kennedy Space Center, while commercial launches (including Space X resupply missions to the International Space Station) will continue from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) launch pads. SpaceX plans to use Cape Canaveral (and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California) to launch humans directly from US soil to the International Space Station.
After the 2014 explosion at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Orbital merged in 2015 with another company to become Orbital ATK. The new company decided to replace the first-stage engines made in Russia with a different model. While the pad on Wallops Island was being repaired, Orbital ATK used a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to launch two resupply missions from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station.
Orbital ATK returned to Wallops Island to launch an Antares rocket with a Cygnus capsule in October 2016, using the new Russian engines.
the Antares rocket is carried horizontally to the launch pad, then lifted into vertical position for launch
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Northrop Grumman Antares CRS-11 Rollout
The private company decided to use Cape Canaveral again for its April, 2017 mission. Company officials said the decision was based on NASA's schedule and the ability of the more-powerful Atlas V rocket to deliver over 600 more pounds of cargo, and the following six launches were expected to be at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia.
The decision highlighted that Space-X did not have exclusive rights to use Cape Canaveral, and private companies could choose between the two spaceports. Orbital ATK did return to Virginia to launch another Cygnus capsule on an Antares rocket in November 2017, soon after Northrop Grumman announced it would pay over $9 billion to acquire the company. Another successful launch in May 2018 sent 7,400 pounds of payload up to the International Space Station.
Orbital ATK launched an Antares rocket to the International Space Station from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on November 12, 2017
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NASA Space Station Cargo Launches Aboard Orbital ATK Mission
After the successful 2017 launch, a happy astronaut on the International Space Station tweeted "Pizza and ice cream on the way!" Another launch on November 17, 2018 sent more ice cream with 7,400 pounds of supplies on a two-day trip to the International Space Station. It was the first Cygnus launched by Northrop Grumman, which had acquired OrbitalATK five months earlier.14
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Pizza Night on the Space Station!
There are two spaceports in Florida. Space Florida is competing to draw cargo business away from Wallops Island in Virginia, as noted in the 2013 Florida Spaceport System Plan:15
The Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska also has a long tradition of launching satellites into orbit. In 2013, Virginia and Alaska signed a Memorandum of Agreement to partner with each other. The very different latitudes of the two spaceports helped to minimize competition between them. Kodiak focuses on launches into polar and high-inclination orbits, while the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport targets launches into equatorial (i.e., zero-inclination), low-inclination, and mid-inclination orbits.
Astra, a California-based company, launched two test rockets from Kodiak in 2020 and planned to begin commercial launches in 2021. It already had a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to launch small satellites to Earth orbit. Astra's business strategy was to use low-cost boosters to launch just small satellites, while companies such as SpaceX focused on larger payloads and offered less flexibility for small-sat missions.16
FAA's list of Active Launch Site Operator Licenses, 2013
Source: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Active Commercial Space Licenses
The Wallops Flight Facility started launching rockets in 1945, but during the race to the moon it was surpassed by Kennedy Space Center. Virginia decided to make Wallops into a competitor and stimulate the economy on the Eastern Shore, as described by the Washington Post in 2011:17
A 2011 report to the Virginia Department of Transportation assessed the competition from Florida, New Mexico, California, and Alaska. It concluded that New Mexico was targeting a different market (space tourism), and:18
advantages and disadvantage of Wallops compared to other spaceports
Source: Competitive Analysis of Virginia's Space Industry
The report also recommended that the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority "become a much more robust organization." Proposals included loosening the dependence on Old Dominion University, and reducing the influence of Orbital Sciences Corporation on the board in order to attract competitors.
In 2011, state responsibility for the spaceport was shifted from Virginia's Secretary of Commerce and Trade to the Secretary of Transportation, in 2012 the membership on the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority board was revised, and by 2014 the General Assembly had directed $16 million annually from transportation funds to operate the spaceport.19
In 2013, the US Navy and NASA finalized arrangements for the Wallops Flight Facility to serve as a site for E-2C Hawkeye, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and C-2A Greyhound (E-2/C-2) Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) operations. The Navy had struggled since 2000 to find an alternative site to the Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake, seeking undeveloped areas where lighting on a landing strip could be configured to resemble a carrier isolated in a dark ocean. Lack of capacity at Fentress had forced some squadrons using the propeller-based Hawkeyes and Greyhounds to practice in Jacksonville, Florida. To minimize expense, and to keep air squadrons near the carriers where the pilots would serve, the Navy determined it needed a "local" field, and:20
Wallops Flight Facility is close enough to Norfolk to serve as an Outer Landing Field for Navy pilots to practice carrier landings
Source: US Navy, Final Environmental Assessment, E-2/C-2 Field Carrier Landing Practice Operations at Emporia-Greensville Regional Airport, Greensville County, Virginia, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration Wallops Flight Facility, Accomack County, Virginia (Figure 1-1)
Landowners in Southampton, Surry, and Sussex counties (plus Gates and Camden counties in North Carolina) strongly objected to locations proposed for a new Outlying Landing Field that might involve jet landings, blocking efforts to construct an alternative to Fentress. Virginia Beach and state officials feared that failure to find a new training facility, without distracting lights from suburban houses and retail store parking lots/signage, would impact the Navy's plans to base the new F-35C Navy Joint Strike Fighter at Oceana.
The Virginia Department of Aviation determined that airports in the cities of Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, and Chesapeake, plus other airports in the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Accomack (Wallops), would be suitable for use by the propeller-based Hawkeye and Greyhound planes. Those airports could serve as a separate facility for practice by the propeller-based planes, when the carrier jets were using Fentress. The state recommended to the Navy the Franklin Municipal Airport, an airport built originally by the military in World War II.21
The city initially supported the plan, anticipating that $1 million/year rent from the Navy would help to replace the economic hole created when International Paper closed its Franklin mill. However, the Board of Supervisors in Isle of Wight county and ultimately the Franklin City Council both opposed the plan after citizens objected to the noise.22
The Navy then centered its efforts on Emporia-Greensville Regional Airport, in Greensville County. However, a soon-to-retire Navy pilot complained publicly about the failure to consider Wallops Flight Facility, and asked the Inspector General to investigate the site selection process. The Emporia runway was long enough for touch-and-go landings, but too short to allow planes to land so pilots could rotate in and out. The Navy whistleblower claimed the operational efficiencies at Wallops, with a longer airstrip, would total $17 million more over a decade.23
NASA got $1.9 million/year from the Navy for use of the airfield for up to 6 months/year. The economic boost to Accomack County came from the 120 Navy personnel who may end up living temporarily in the area for 15 weeks, providing a temporary boost of population and stimulating demand for some local services and retail. The Navy already has a small Surface Combat Systems Center contingent at Wallops.24
Wallops Flight Facility and highway bridge to Chincoteague Island (the airfield is on the mainland, while launch pads are on Wallops Island itself)
Source: US Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Imagery Program
Wallops Flight Facility could also become one of six testing centers for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, as those aircraft are commercialized for civilian activities within the United States. NASA has already used Wallops for flying Global Hawk drones above hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, for the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel program research into how storms form and move. Pilots were based in both California and at Wallops, operating in shifts to control the aircraft remotely ("fly-by-mouse").
The state of Virginia spent $3.5 million and built a 3,500-foot runway for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. That put the site into the top three considered by the US Navy in 2016 for basing the MQ-4C Triton drones designed for reconnaissance missions. Getting the US Navy to base those drones at Wallops would create 400 full-time jobs in Accomack County, and add 500 new family members as well:25
planned development at Wallops Research Park
Source: Master Plan, Wallops Research Park
Local officials recognize the potential to increase tourism by highlighting operations at Wallops. For the September, 2013 LADEE launch to the moon, the executive director of Chincoteague's Chamber of Commerce said:26
The local paper used "NASA's Antares rocket creates sonic and tourism booms." as the headline for an October, 2016 article about tourists coming to see the first launch of the Antares rocket after the 2014 explosion. Delays in the launch date pushed it past the traditional tourist season, and that delighted owners of hotels and vacation homes at Chincoteague. The additional personnel required to prepare for the launch also helped boost the local economy:27
jobs associated with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) will help local students stay in their community and become local employees
Much effort is targeted towards attracting new businesses to locate in a 200-acre industrial/office park adjacent to the runways on the mainland. Accomack County is a rural area, but implementation of the Eastern Shore Broadband Initiative allows the county to offer high-speed Internet access now... and Wallops Flight Facility offers unique access to space as well.
The General Assembly has exempted space-related businesses from taxes under Zero G Zero Tax Act of 2008, after the 2007 Spaceflight Liability and Immunity Act provided legal protection for companies that send people into space. The favorable business climate stimulated Orbital to choose Wallops over Kennedy Space Center, and may attract other businesses as well.28
lifting an Antares rocket into launch position at launch Pad-0A in 2013
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Antares Rocket Preparation (201312170012HQ)
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport finally recruited a second customer in 2017. Virginia and Maryland competed with other spaceports that were also licensed by the Federal Aviation administration for launching commercial payloads to orbit.
Vector Space Systems, with headquarters and production facilities at Tucson, Arizona, was a start-up founded by people with experience in SpaceX and other space-related businesses. It committed to three, and up to eight, launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
Vector planned to send payloads up to about 145 pounds into low-earth orbit, using a mobile launch platform that could be set up within just three hours. The new company's business plan focused on launching microsatellites that competitors such as Space-X considered to be just ancillary to their primary business.
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops was one of five spaceports the company planned to use, including Spaceport Camden in Georgia, Vandenberg in California, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and potentially Kodiak Island in Alaska.
Vector planned for 400 launches annually to meet commercial, university, and government demand for putting small satellites into orbit, so:29
The company tested its first prototype in Mojave, California, and its second prototype with an August, 2017 launch from Georgia. The second flight was designed to test rocket engine design. Because it stayed below 10,000 feet, Vector could use Spaceport Camden even though the Georgia site was not licensed yet as a spaceport by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In the end, Camden County spent at least $12 million on the cancelled spaceport. One bill for lobbying the state government was $3,500 a month. A public relations contract cost $8,000/month, and totaled almost $400,000. 30
Virginia also invested $20 million in 2018 to attract launches for secret satellites. The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority funded construction of a new payload processing center with greater security, in hopes of getting more business from the Department of Defense, intelligence agencies, or even commercial customers seeking to protect trade secrets. Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport was investing in infrastructure, as well as marketing its services, to increase market share.
shoreline hardening at Wallops Island, to protect $1 billion of infrastructure from shoreline retreat averaging over 12 feet/year since 1857
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the Shoreline Restoration and Infrastructure Protection Program
In 2020, the Payload Processing Facility was put to use for the first time. The US Space Force launched a Minotaur IV from Wallops to place four classified payloads into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The Minotaur IV rocket used "three solid-fueled motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs and a commercial solid rocket upper stage."31
in 2020, US Space Force used Wallops to launch four classified payloads into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Minotaur IV Launches from Wallops
In late 2018, a California company named Rocket Lab announced plans to launch satellites from Wallops. It chose the Virginia site over three other competitors - Cape Canaveral (Florida), the Pacific Spaceport Complex (Alaska), and Vandenberg Air Force Base (California), creating its first facility in the United States to match its existing launch pad in New Zealand.
To compete with rivals, Rocket Lab adopted a business strategy of using lightweight rockets to launch just small satellites weighing up to 500 pounds. Its two-stage Electron rockets were originally planned to be expendable rather than reused, using engines produced by 3-D printing. Virginia officials provided a $5 million Transportation Partnership Opportunity Fund grant to help it choose the Virginia spaceport, and anticipated monthly launches by the private company could provide 30-100 new jobs at Wallops Research Park.
To increase the number of rockets available for rapid launching, the company decided to capture the Electron boosters rather than allow them just to crash into the Atlantic Ocean. It chose to use a parachute for re-entry, then have a helicopter grapple the booster with a hook.
Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 2 for the Electron rocket was unveiled in December, 2019 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. Almost 10 months later, the Rocket Lab Integration and Control Facility was operational. That gave the Virginia spaceport three launch pads, thanks in large part to $250 million in investment by the Virginia government.
The Virginia facility complemented the company's New Zealand complex. Wallops was attractive to Rocket Lab not only because of its availability and cost, but because the geographic spacing and redundancy of capability enabled the company to offer up to 130 launches/year using the Electron rocket. Its business plan for the Electron rocket was based on offering a quick way to reach orbit, rather than offering a powerful rocket that could send payloads to the moon or beyond.
Rocket Lab's first launch of an Electron rocket from Wallops was successful on January 24, 2023. The "Virginia is the Launch Lovers" launch was the first to use NASA's newly-developed Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU). That system, installed on the rocket, reduced the need for telemetry and ground-based personnel such as range safety officers to monitor and terminate a launch if a rocket veered off course or out of control. Reducing such costs reduced the overall costs to launch payloads into space.
Economic development officials were especially excited about Rocket Lab's plans to hire hundreds of workers to manufacture the larger Neutron rockets in Accomack County. The first Neutron launch from Wallops, able to carry a 1.6 ton payload to Mars or Venus, was scheduled for 2024. The Neutron rocket would go into space from a fourth launch pad to be constructed a Wallops.
By December 2022 Rocket Lab already had 32 successful Electron rocket launches from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, but the company highlighted the extra reliability from establishing its $20 million Launch Complex 2 in Virginia:32
The "Virginia Is For Launch Lovers" launch in January, 2023 initiated Rocket Lab's use of the company's Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island
Source: Rocket Lab, Rocket Lab Debut Launch from LC-2 - "Virginia Is For Launch Lovers"
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (Virginia Space) purchased 28 acres in 2021 in hopes of getting Rocket Lab to build its assembly plant for the more-powerful Neutron launch vehicle. The two-stage Electron rocket was 59 feet tall and suitable for just small payloads. The Neutron rocket was 131 feet tall, and was designed to return to the launch pad after boosting an eight-ton payload into orbit. That was comparable to the payload capacity of the Antares rocket, a two-stage vehicle (with optional third stage) developed by Orbital Sciences before becoming part of Northop Grumman.
Virginia Space made a successful gamble. Rocket Lab committed in 2022 to build its Neutron Production and Launch Complex operation at Wallops.
Virginia Space agreed to spend $15 million to construct buildings that would be leased to Rocket Lab, and the General Assembly provided another $30 million for infrastructure upgrades at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The investment was part of a long-term plan. Attracting 250 new jobs from Rocket Lab's manufacturing, assembly, and operations work would advance the state's goal of making the Eastern Shore into a hub for aerospace and aviation operations.33
ceremonial start of construction of Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 2, used for the Electron rocket
Source: Rocket Lab, Our Launch Sites
In 2019, Florida's status as the primary competitor was made even more clear when Boeing announced it would move its Space and Launch division from Arlington to Titusville:34
Other states sought to get into the business as well. In 2020, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association selected Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, a former U.S. Air Force base, as the preferred site for launching satellites into low-earth orbits from Michigan. State officials hoped the capacity to launch communication and navigation satellites would increase the state's role as a hub for autonomous vehicles.35
In 2020, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) began to use Wallops to launch spy satellites into orbit. The head of the intelligence agency was the former NASA director with responsibility for the Wallops Flight Facility, so he understood how the Virginia Space Coast offered the agency increased flexibility for launching sites. The launch was the first mission of the newly-created US Space Force (USSF) to use Wallops. In October, 2020, another Cygnus capsule was launched to the International Space Station, providing both supplies and a new $23 million titanium space toilet.
In February 2021, the 13th successful launch of an Antares rocket from Wallops placed a Cygnus capsule in orbit, and completed another cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. By that time, launches were becoming routine. Launch of a second National Reconnaissance Office and another International Space Station resupply mission generated little news coverage, other than stories that people as far west as Washington, DC might be able to see evidence of the launches.
July, 2014 launch of resupply mission from Wallops to International Space Station
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Antares Rocket Launches Cargo to Space Station
Northrop Grumman's ability to build Antares 230+ rockets was interrupted when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. The main body of the rocket was manufactured in Ukraine, and the RD-181 engines were manufactured in Russia. The company partnered with Firefly Aerospace, based in Texas, to replaced those parts and build an upgraded Antares 330 rocket to launch the Cygnus spacecraft.36
Northrop Grumman was launching a supply mission to the International Space Station every six months. There were only two Antares rockets available for launches in Fall 2022 and Spring 2023, and the new rocket would not be available in time for the Fall 2023 launch. To provide reliable supply service for NASA, Northrop Grumman purchased three launches on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.
The Executive Director of Virginia Space, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, was pleased that Northrop Grumman and Firefly would produce new Antares rockets:37
Source: NASAWallops, "Quick Look" Video of Antares Rocket Launch From NASA Wallops: April 17, 2019
In addition to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the barrier island, the space business has created jobs at Langley Research Center. The "Moon to Mars" mission and other National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) programs were estimated to support 27,000 jobs in Virginia in 2020.38
In 2021, Accomack County rezoned 28 acres on Wallops Island from agricultural to industrial use. The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, known by then as "Virginia Space," planned to recruit Rocket Lab to replace old poultry houses with new facilities to build the company's Neutron rocket. The company was already assembling its smaller Electron rockets at Wallops Research Park. The Neutron model was intended to carry freight initially, but was designed to carry humans into space as well.
The Chief Executive Officer of Virginia Space told county officials that the rezoning could convert a chicken farm into a "rocket ranch." The company planned to bring 250 high-paying, full-time, aerospace manufacturing jobs to the Eastern Shore.
After Rocket Lab did commit to building the Neutron rocket in Accomack County, local officials anticipated property tax revenue would increase by 6%. The Rocket Lab venture was cited as a clear justification for the previous investment of $250 million to develop the spaceport.39
At the end of 2023 the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated $20 million more for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. That expanded on the $176 million in previous state support since 1995.
The infusion of additional economic development funding was intended to incentivize Northrop Grumman and other rocket companies to match the efforts of Rocket Lab to get certification for launching humans into orbit from Wallops. Wallops could become a site for launching tourists into space.
The Virginia Spaceport Authority planned to use the $20 million to modify one of its three orbital launch pads in order to launch rockets larger than the Antares, which could carry 17,000 pounds into space. The Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) being developed by Firefly was intended to launch 35,000 pounds.40
Source: YouTube, NG-10: Antares 230 launches SS John Young Cygnus
Wallops is a base for satellite communications, as well as launches
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Satellite antenna at Wallops Island, Virginia
sounding rocket launched for atmospheric research at Wallops, September 2012
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Sounding Rockets Program Office
launch of LADEE to moon, September 2013
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), LADEE Launch
test version of Minotaur V launch vehicle at Wallops Flight Facility, in preparation for launch of LADEE to moon
(showing rock wall on left to protect rocket pad from storm surges)
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Wide-angle view of Minotaur V at NASA Wallops
the recycled ICBM components in the Minotaur that launched LADEE to moon were designed originally
to carry 10 multiple nuclear warheads, and to allow reloading the silo for a second strike
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), LADEE's Minotaur V Rocket
piping plover nesting habitat at Wallops Flight Facility
Source: United States Air Force, Final Environmental Assessment for the Orbital/Sub-Orbital Program (Figure 3-6)
the Cygnus capsule launched from Wallops delivered 3,669 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station on July 16, 2014
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Island Access (July 2014)
Antares rocket prior to successful launch in September 2013 to carry cargo to International Space Station (ISS), 260 miles above earth
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Antares Ready for Launch