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NASA Wallops: Moon launch, private partnerships drive future after 75 years

Daniel Novak
Special to Salisbury Daily Times

With hundreds of astronauts having reached space, six lunar landings and thousands of satellites launched into orbit, it can be easy to forget what a relatively young endeavor American spaceflight is.

When the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia launched its first test rocket June 27, 1945, no manmade object had even been sent to space. It still wouldn’t be another 16 years until an American reached space, another 24 years until humans set foot on the moon and another 53 years until the launch of the International Space Station.

It’s impossible to predict what space exploration will look like 75 years from now, but Wallops’ key role in supporting scientific discovery and space exploration by launching and testing spacecraft looks unlikely to change any time soon.

“Wallops is in one of the strongest positions that the facility has been in its 75-year history,” said Wallops Director David Pierce.

Return to the moon

In December 2019, Virginia Space at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island completed construction of a launch pad for Rocket Lab, a private company that specializes in sending small satellites into orbit. It has two launches planned in the next year, and one in support of NASA’s return to the moon.

Rocket Lab engineers and technicians carried out a range of successful integrated systems tests to verify launch systems on Electron and on the ground systems at Launch Complex 2. The critical checks included raising Electron vertical on the launch pad for the first time.

“We only broke ground a year and a half ago for Rocket Lab, and we now have a fully functional pad out there,” said Wallops Deputy Director Bob Jameson. “We're waiting on them at this point and we're ready to go for a Rocket Lab launch right now.”

Early next year, Rocket Lab, in partnership with NASA, will launch a small satellite as a part of NASA’s Artemis program that aims to return astronauts back to the moon by 2024.The 55-pound CubeSat will map out a lunar orbit to ensure safe entry for a manned mission to the moon’s surface.

“We're really excited about the future in terms of … how we're going to support the NASA work, just as we did in the early days to the agency.” Pierce said. “Testing out Apollo and other technology — here we are doing it again, going to the moon and then on to Mars.”

More:Rocket Lab rolls out launch vehicle at its Wallops Island complex

Part of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, also known as CAPSTONE, next year’s launch will be Rocket Lab’s second launch from Wallops and the second lunar launch from Virginia. Jameson added the company might need to delay its first launch planned for August because of a failure at its other launch pad in New Zealand on July 4. Rocket Lab will have the capability to complete launches once a month when the pad is fully functional.

Expansion of partnerships with private industry

Space exploration in 2020 is largely being driven by private industry, rather than national governments. Wallops has made partnerships with Northrup Grumman and Space-X, and continues to work alongside Virginia Space and Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which support commercial spaceflight activity in the region and also operate on Wallops Island.

“I would say that the space race today, is not a race between countries like it was in the '60s, it's between commercial entities that are vying to commercialize space,” said Wallops Director David Pierce. “You're seeing that those commercial entities are serving as an economic engine, by enabling not just space, but enabling commercial space on Delmarva and in our country.”

More: Space news you may have missed for July

Last year, NASA announced 13 different companies involved with 19 different partnership projects working to get back to the moon and eventually to Mars. While NASA contracting with private industry is nothing new, NASA now provides more in research and development support. NASA has awarded more than $120 million to companies over the past five years to support agency missions through its Tipping Point program.

In May, Space-X became the first private spaceflight company to carry astronauts into space. Wallops is collecting telemetry data “from the second stage of the Space-X Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon spacecraft as they head north up the Atlantic coast after launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida,” Wallops Range Project Manager Alfred Fordan stated in a press release.

Pierce sees public-private partnerships as essential in powering innovation in space exploration.

“We're going to continue to aggressively go after new commercial ventures,” as a preferred launch site for small commercial spacecraft, he said. “And economically, it's really smart to work with our commercial partners because we can leverage all that investment.”

Improving defense testing and scientific research

Wallops continues to be an important asset for the military, testing weapons systems and launching intelligence satellites. A classified payload successfully launched July 15 on behalf the Department of Defense’s National Reconnaissance Office and the newly introduced Space Force.

More:Launch successful for Minotaur IV, first Space Force mission rocket from Wallops

“We’re really excited about opportunities for doing hypersonics (missiles), using both our suborbital capabilities here at Wallops, and then even into larger hypersonic vehicles launched on behalf of the Navy,” Jameson said. “I think that's really sort of our future here.”

Sounding rockets that perform experiments and scientific balloons that study the sun, solar system and other stars sent into near-space from Wallops that Pierce said continue to improve and fly longer and complete more sophisticated missions.

The future of spaceflight and space exploration may be hard to predict, but it’s safe to assume Wallops is already a part of it.

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that from its inception, Wallops Flight Facility has played an instrumental role in the country’s aerospace technology development and exploration.

“The facility’s unique capabilities in suborbital research, smallsat development, and operating NASA’s only launch range will be great assets as America sends the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024 through NASA’s Artemis program and continues our exploration of our home planet, Mars and beyond,” he said.