Across the Chesapeake Bay from Virginia’s mainland is a peninsula that reaches south toward Virginia Beach.
The area, known locally as the Eastern Shore, is home to Chincoteague, a coastal resort town set in rural farmland, and a collection of islands where wild ponies still run free.
But not far from the town where locals say a crossing family of ducks is the most likely cause of a traffic jam lies a rocket facility nearly older than manned flight itself.
The Wallops Flight Facility has been in operation since 1945, playing host to thousands of tests, suborbital launches and, beginning in 2013, resupply missions to the International Space Station.
The business community has embraced the area’s sky-gazing spirit, as rockets have essentially become the mascot for the region, appearing on restaurant T-shirts and factoring into ice cream flavors, while area officials aim to attract more space companies to a brand new research park.
In many ways, Chincoteague resembles the space-age city that officials in South Texas have envisioned Brownsville becoming once Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, builds its launch pad at Boca Chica beach.
A space industry ‘Field of Dreams’
The Wallops Flight Facility has been woven into the local fabric of AccomackCounty since it was built by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor.
Rocket tests and suborbital launches have been part of daily life on Virginia’s Eastern Shore dating back to before the Space Race, when Mercury rockets were being tested there ahead of manned missions from Florida.
But Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce Director Evelyn Shotwell said things really took off for the area when Wallops began launching International Space Station-bound payloads with Antares rockets in 2013.
The state-run Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport, or MARS, is now looking for new tenants to use its launch pad while construction is finishing up at the new WallopsResearchPark.
The research park will act as an incubator for research companies in a manner similar to what has been proposed for the University of Texas’ STARGATE partnership with SpaceX at Boca Chica beach.
A university consortium is already located at the park, but construction won’t be complete until at least December.
That hasn’t stopped Julie Wheatley, the park director, from trying to attract new businesses to bring their business to the park, which is targeting space-related companies.
Wheatley said although the rocketry industry has had a presence on the Eastern Shore for years, the new opportunities afforded by the research park are unprecedented.
“My marketing tag is ‘Space Available,’” Wheatley joked, explaining that while the park is aiming to attract aerospace start-ups, it is also working with Virginia Tech to court the unmanned aerial vehicle market.
While STARGATE will center on satellite communication, Wheatley said the Boca Chica spaceport proposal bears many similarities to the WallopsResearchPark, especially in how it will set the table for investment ahead of time.
The partnership between public and private companies in CameronCounty is different from the all-government approach at WallopsResearchPark, she said, but the development there will ultimately benefit similar parks everywhere.
“It’s raising the tide for all of us in the aerospace industry,” she said.