Delaware By Day: Wallops Island NASA Flight Facility

Ok, Wallops Island is not in Delaware, but it’s not far either. Definitely a day trip worth considering, particularly if you are a fan of NASA and anything to do with space or rockets. 

Wallops Island Flight Facility is only an hour and a half drive away, located in Virginia’s eastern shore – still on the Delmarva peninsula.  

The launch site has a fascinating history, including the fact that it is one the oldest in the world. The first rocket ever launched here was in 1945, when rocket technology was still in its infancy. Tens of thousands of rocket launches have since taken place, and more recently, it is a crucial launch site for unmanned rockets to send supplies and scientific research equipment to the International Space Station. 

Why is this a great day trip? First, the public generally is allowed to view the launches from a safe distance. NASA even has a visitor center complete with outdoor bleachers for launch viewing. 

The trick is arriving early, whether you are at the visitor center or viewing it from several other coastal perspectives. The causeway leading from the mainland towards Chincoteague is prime viewing space, but parking is limited since it is, after all, primarily a narrow causeway.  

Spectators line up sometimes hours before launch with binoculars and zoom lenses to get the best look, even though when it’s all said and done, the launch only takes a minute or two. But oh, what intrigue and joy it causes when the launch is successful. 

Weather and other technical complications often “scrub” the launch, even during countdown, so it’s wise to tune into NASA’s live feed to get updates. (Personally, it took until the fourth launch attempt for us to actually see a successful launch.) 

License plates from all over the states adorn the parking areas. People are there with kids and grandkids, using the launch experience as a science lesson and perhaps inspiring future pilots and astronauts! 

On the fortunate day when we finally witnessed a launch, there was a palpable buzz in the audience. Many cars were blaring NASA’s live countdown broadcast, and people competed for the best photo op location on the rocks next to the causeway. It happened to be frigidly cold and windy that day, but it was worth the wait in our case to witness an Anteres rocket (approximately 13 stories in height) launching supplies and other classified cargo bound for the space station or satellites. 

If, like us, you experience a last second scrub of the launch, don’t fret. You can also make a day of it by visiting nearby Assateague National Seashore or its neighbor, Assateague State Park. Both have stunning wild beaches and camping facilities. Or you can find a bite to eat in the beachy town of Chincoteague

Although Wallops Island is a NASA property, a Naval facility is also there. In fact, it’s a training ground for pilots to train on landing on aircraft carriers – not a mere accomplishment. It also is the site of several balloon launches every year for researching atmospheric science data such as weather. 

Because of the important calculation of launch time depends on exactly where the space station happens to be, some launches occur in the wee hours. Yet the faithful and the curious flock to Wallops to experience the thrill of rocketing. It’s something anyone on the Delmarva Peninsula should not miss. 

By Bridget Fitzpatrick

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