It’s been nearly 65 years since Misty of Chincoteague galloped from the pages of Marguerite Henry’s book into the imaginations of millions of young people, helping transform the namesake town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore into a popular tourist destination with its annual wild pony round-up and access to the pristine beaches of Assateague Island.
Now, the otherwise rural area is poised for another transformation, one spurred by the roar of rockets instead of whinnies of wild horses. And design and construction firms may want to watch closely to see how it unfolds.
The hub of this yet-to-be realized boon is NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility, and the adjacent Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) operated by the 16-year-old Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority.
Long overshadowed by Cape Canaveral and the manned spaceflight program, Wallops and MARS are now jockeying for a share of the post-Space Shuttle rocket-transport business, one that will be driven more heavily by private-sector upstarts rather than the massive government-funded effort that kept Americans in space for half a century.
Of course, the federal influence is heavily felt a Wallops, which has been a center for staging research missions since 1945. Along with NASA’s ownership of the actual launch facilities, MARS’s anchor tenant, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., has been launching military satellites and other DoD payloads for several years. The company will soon assume part of the job of boosting supplies to the International Space Station under a $1.9 billion NASA contract.
But as a recent Washington Post story on MARS’s lofty ambitions noted, Wallops is less bureaucratic and less focused on military missions that its more famous counterpart in Florida—attributes that offer flexibility to better accommodate demand craved by the new generation of space-based businesses.
An uptick in business would certainly mean a need for more facilities in the area to serve everyone from research, support, and space hardware assembly operations to visitor-oriented hospitality and entertainment. Infrastructure and transportation access—currently by U.S. Route 13 and a state secondary highway—might also need upgrading to handle a greater volume of activity.
Wallops is not alone in harboring starry-eyed hopes of space-based development. There’s also Spaceport America in New Mexico, which will serve as the hub of Richard Branson’s budding space tourism enterprise; Alaska’s Kodiak Island Launch Complex; the Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Fla.; and the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Nor will Cape Canaveral be mothballed. Though Space Shuttles will no longer soar from launch complex 39, the facilities, infrastructure, and access necessary for rocket-powered missions of all sizes are already in place. And while the military may still have priority, the facility still boasts a track record that the new generation of spaceports will require years to even approach.
Perhaps the biggest question is how the post-Shuttle privatized space business will unfold. The market is virtually as untested as human extraterrestrial travel was in 1961 when Alan Shepard stepped into his cramped Mercury capsule for a 15-minute suborbital ride. (And that’s only after monkeys, dogs, and a Russian cosmonaut had gone before him, not to mention dozens of spectacularly unsuccessful rocket tests.)
But then, space itself is filled with unknowns, the kind that have excited and inspired generations of scientists and science fiction writers, pilots and Presidents, teachers and Trekkies.
Gigs launching satellites and high-altitude rides for moneyed tourists may not have the same cachet of orchestrating spacewalks and lunar landings, but they will allow these spaceports to not only become hubs of economic development, but also help solidify and expand the expertise and infrastructure necessary for the next great leap into what is still a wild, untamed frontier.
And when you’re home to perhaps the most famous wild pony of them all, it may well be Wallops and MARS that fly the highest.