Into the wild green yonder

November 28, 2006

Barring a human or natural mishap, the scheduled Dec. 11 launch of a Minotaur I rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility inches closer to blastoff today when the four-stage vehicle is placed on its Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport pad at the southern end of the little island below Chincoteague. It's a small nudge for a satellite, but it's a huge leap for the Delmarva Peninsula.

Until recently, the little-known MARS program has remained off most people's radars, particularly in Maryland. Envisioned as a commercial launch pad and built by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority on Wallops Island in 1998, MARS gained a significant cache - and potential - in the aerospace world three years ago when, prodded by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner agreed that the neighboring states would jointly oversee the facility. So far, Maryland's financial aid to MARS has been $150,000 a year, a paltry sum in light of the direct economic benefits to a region traditionally dependent upon seasonal tourism, seafood harvests and farm crops for most of its income.

With the growing excitement surrounding the launch, it's easy to forget that 10 years ago the federal government, citing budget concerns and an ebbing enthusiasm for space programs, almost shut down the Wallops facility. A work force of more than 2,000 had dwindled to about 800. Today, Wallops employs about 1,800 people, a third of them Marylanders. While the combined annual budgets of the flight center and the commercial spaceport is about $150 million, insiders say the facility could bring billions worth of investments to the rural region.

More immediate economic windfall should come to the area's small businesses when a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators is expected to show up for the Dec. 11 launching which, if successful, will mark the first spacecraft to reach orbit from Wallops in 21 years.

Because of its location, the Wallops Flight Facility location is seen as crucial to the future of commercial space projects. If the December flight and three others scheduled for next year from Wallops go off as planned, the site could logically emerge as the go-to spaceport for launching military and private-enterprise cargo payloads as well as for gaining a foothold in future space tourism. That's right. In years to come, vacationers heading to the Atlantic might have to decide between Skee ball on the boardwalk or an orbit around Earth.

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