WALLOPS ISLAND FACILITY, Va. -- The steely-eyed missile men and women of this isolated NASA outpost are staging dozens of countdowns and lift-offs this week. But here in the mosquito-infested marshes of Virginia's Eastern Shore, the glamour of space flight is nowhere in sight.
Instead, Wallops workers and a German scientist are sweating in the soupy heat as they launch several dozen small rockets and release weather balloons from one of the world's oldest rocket ranges.
Laboring in obscurity, Dr. Gerald Lehmacher of the University of Wuppertal in Germany and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration crew are providing the space shuttle Discovery with a reality check.
They are charged with making sure that a German scientific satellite deployed by the shuttle is seeing what it thinks it sees as it studies the Earth's atmosphere.
"Someone has to do it down here," the 35-year-old physicist says with a shrug. "I had experience in rocket campaigns, so here I am."
He says he is a little envious, not just of the astronauts, but of more than 15 of his German colleagues, who are working three shifts at Cape Canaveral monitoring the $73 million satellite.
"I would have loved to see the shuttle take off," he says, sighing.
Called CRISTA, for Cryogenic Infrared Spectrometers and Telescopes, the satellite is equipped with three supercooled telescopes and four spectrometers. The instruments measure temperatures, winds and levels of gases in the atmosphere.
Spectrometers identify various molecules by measuring which parts of the light spectrum they absorb and which parts they reflect.
CRISTA is looking for nitric oxide, nitric acid, hydroxyl and other trace gases, those present in small amounts in the ocean of air.
But CRISTA's most critical target is ozone.
Near the ground, ozone is a lung-searing pollutant. Higher up, it shields the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Concern that chlorofluorocarbons, called CFCs, were eroding the atmosphere's thin ozone layer has led to a worldwide ban on their manufacture. CFCs were used as aerosol propellants.
Ozone levels are stabilizing, but other gases produced by industry and agriculture can destroy ozone or otherwise throw the air's chemistry out of whack.
"The aim is to study these trace gases, how they get transported throughout the whole atmosphere," Lehmacher says.
CRISTA's instruments make detailed pictures of the swirling patterns left by gases as they churn on a global scale -- patterns atmospheric physicists call streamers, filaments and waves.
It's like pouring milk into coffee and then stirring, Lehmacher explains. As the milk spins its way into the coffee, it creates spiraling patterns.
For each of the six astronauts aboard Discovery, a couple of hundred people are working behind the scenes on earth, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration estimates. And for the 11-day shuttle mission, Wallops -- an arm of the Goddard Space Flight Center -- is about as behind the scenes as it gets.
Each morning and evening, two huge research balloons are tethered to instrument packages by 100-foot cords. About an hour before the satellite passes over, they are taken out of their storage shed and released.
The balloons, which measure conditions in the lower atmosphere, drift for about two hours up to an altitude of 130,000 feet.
To gauge conditions higher up, NASA uses 11-foot-tall Super Loki rockets.
The launch procedure, played out for the 17th time this week at Launch Pad 2 on Wednesday, requires two technicians who lift the rockets out of the bed of a pickup truck.
Wearing anti-static lab coats to prevent dangerous sparks, they carefully ease four of the rockets, two of which are spares, into a rusting launcher, a remote-controlled, bus-sized scaffold equipped with spiraling guides called "rails."
They insert ignition devices into the tails of the boosters and connect electrical leads, securing the wires to the launcher with tape.
The aluminum Super Lokis have two stages. One is a 7-foot-tall booster 4 inches in diameter, packed with solid fuel. The second stage is a 2-inch-thick, 4-foot-4-inch-long "dart," which carries no propellant and is tossed aloft by the booster.
Technicians pack each rocket's nose cone. One carries temperature sensors and an ozone-measuring instrument, both connected to a transmitter that will send radio data back to Wallops.
The other rocket carries a Mylar sphere more than a yard in diameter, designed to reflect radar signals.
By tracking it, scientists can measure wind speed and direction. And they can calculate air pressure and even temperature by measuring the sphere's rate of descent through layers of the atmosphere.
Seven miles from the rocket range, Lehmacher and a few NASA managers gather in the dimly lighted, cavernous Mission Control room.
Rows of computer-equipped desks face 10 huge television screens displaying live pictures of the launch pad, a radar image of the test range, weather information and other data.
In the middle hangs an American flag.