The Island of Flight
On the Fourth of July, 1945, a rocket blasted off from a beach on the Atlantic coast.
Now, over 14,000 launches later, this beach is still NASA's most active launch complex, and home to some of the most advanced scientific aircraft in flight.William Ferguson, a technician at Wallops Island in 1950, makes adjustments on a NACA D4 rocket. Hand tuning on the launch pad was typical for an engineer working in the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division.
Welcome to Wallops Island, Virginia, where space exploration and Earth sciences collide on what locals call the Eastern Shore, the land that divides the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA's Wallops Flight Facility is one of the oldest rocket launch sites in the world. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics turned Wallops Island into a launch site in 1945, but it wasn't until 1958 that NASA was formed and took over the facility.
Today, you'll find long-distance balloons being developed to fly to the boundaries of space, and unmanned aircraft that fly non-stop across the Atlantic. And, of course, plenty of rockets.
"In 2003, we had 27 rocket launches," said Frank Lau, operations manager of Wallops' Sounding Rocket Program Office."Launch Row" at Wallops Flight Facility in 1982. In the same year, Wallops was designated as NASA's primary facility for suborbital programs, and became part of the Goddard Space Flight Center.
'Sounding' rockets get their name from the nautical term for taking measurements. In this case, most of the measurements are of Earth and space environmental data.
"About 95 percent of our missions are scientific payloads," noted Lau.
A short walk from the sounding rockets, you'll find a much calmer ride into the sky: NASA's Balloon Program Office.
"We support a lot of disciplines - infrared, gamma-ray and X-ray astrophysics are a few," said David Gregory, assistant chief of the Balloon Program Office.An ultra-long duration balloon, or ULDB, is inflated and tested by Wallops personnel in Alice Springs, Australia. The program is developing balloon technology that will allow for missions over 100 days in length.
"We can put a balloon payload up in the air for anywhere from 6 hours to 32 days. Our ultra-long duration balloon program will have a full test flight around the globe in December of 2005."
The Balloon Program Office sees about 25 launches a year, at locations ranging from Antarctica to the southwest U.S., depending on the requirements of the mission.
In the way of more traditional winged aircraft, you'll find plenty at Wallops Island, but the newest are those that fly without pilots. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) program doesn't test your standard remote control airplane.
"The Altus 2 and Global Hawk UAVs can reach altitudes of about 65,000 feet," said Chuck Williams, NASA project manager at Wallops. "Aerosonde, the one we're working with right now, can go out for around 30 hours without refueling."An unmanned aircraft, designed by Aerosonde Inc., flies overhead. The vehicle is currently being tested at Wallops, and can reach an altitude of up to 20,000 feet. Image credit: Aerosonde Inc.
Unmanned aircraft have been in use by the military for decades, but civilian use of these technologies has only recently started to emerge.
"They can fly in hazardous conditions that you wouldn't want to send a pilot into: volcanic plumes and hurricanes, for instance," noted Williams. "We're testing these aircraft to inspire confidence in them, among the scientific community."
For more information on the research taking place at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, visit
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Wallops Flight Facility