(Note: Click thumbnails for larger pictures.)
Bring your Deep Woods Off! That was the first lesson I learned last weekend while visiting Wallops Island, Virginia, the site of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on the grounds of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. After 10 seconds in the grass in front of the NASA visitor's center on the mainland taking photos, I had a dozen mosquitoes on my legs, sucking away happily. This was much more than I had bargained for when I planned my weekender on the Virginia Eastern Shore, about 3 hours drive from Washington.
Wallops Island is a several-mile long barrier island a mile or two off of the mainland Atlantic coast. North of the island on Chincoteague Bay is a causeway from the mainland to Chincoteague, a small summer vacation town serving beachgoers who are visiting nearby Assateague Island. Assateague Island's claim to fame is the wildlife refuge that is inhabited by herds of feral ponies. It is interesting to see the ponies thrive in such marshy conditions.
On Assateague Island there is a couple-mile long beach, which serves as the primary attraction. The beach isn't impressive compared to the many miles of public beach along the Space Coast, for instance. Also, the water was a little cold for my taste. But it serves well enough for those who don't make the short trip North to beaches in Maryland or Delaware.
The town of Chincoteague faces West to the bay. The town has a few excellent places to frequent. I especially enjoyed the lasagna at the plastic-tablecloth Maria's Restaurant on Maddox Boulevard and the homemade pastries and bread at Sugarbakers on Main Street. Of course, there are numerous seafood restaurants. There are plenty of outlying housing plots on the bay that are accessible by dirt roads. For those who enjoy fishing out on your boat, this is the kind of place for you. It has the feeling of remoteness, while being no more than a mile or two from town.
There are several good places from which to watch launches on Wallops Island. The residents of Chincoteague go to the southern tip of the town at Curtis Merritt Harbor. The docent at the NASA visitor's center on the mainland suggested watching from the visitor's center. She said that the center opens a couple hours before launches (even late night launches) and that they have a viewing along the nearby waterfront. She also mentioned that they have a small auditorium where the main press conferences are held. This appears to be where all officialdom gathers. Also, sometimes the beach on Assateague Island is open for launch watchers.
The closest points to the launch towers appear to be along the mainland bay shore West of the facility -- only about 2 miles between the pads and the shore. Since rockets head Southeast from the pads, the rockets would launch away from the shore. For this reason, it might be that you can see the rocket's trajectory longer if you watch from Curtis Merritt Harbor, even though it is slightly farther away.
The bay shore facing the facility isn't heavily inhabited. Most of the land hosts farm fields and chicken farms. But there are shore plots marked off and for sale -- something of a budding land speculation. Some few houses have been built already. These houses appear to be quality, although not luxury.
New houses along the mainland bay shore on Channel Road (if I recall correctly).
The town of Atlantic is the closest to the mainland bay shore, but there isn't so much as a gas station in town. This fact became of some importance when I got my rental car stuck in the marshy land at the end of Arbuckle Neck Road on the bay. The closest tow truck was about 30 minutes drive away and my cell phone was out of range. This is an area surprisingly unforgiving to city slickers. An amazing Good Samaritan fishing with his family on the bay let me drive his truck to the closest gas station, where I was able to call a tow. What a lesson in charity!
Earth and heaven meet on Arbuckle Neck Road near Atlantic, Virginia. The corn is well more than knee-high on the Fourth of July.
As you may know, SpaceX and NASA are in preliminary discussions for the Falcon 9 to launch from Wallops for International Space Station servicing missions. After visiting the area around the spaceport, it strikes me that the rocket is large for launching as close as a couple miles from inhabited areas. I do not think that Wallops has launched a rocket even close to the size of the Falcon 9. Also, the infrastructure in the surrounding area -- such as roads and railroads -- doesn't appear to be suitable for large rockets. I guess SpaceX would have to barge its rockets in. But if SpaceX does launch from Wallops, it would be quite a sight to see.
Overall, while I have been skeptical about how hospitable a spaceport on a NASA range would be for commercial launches at a high flight rate, I am keeping an open mind on Wallops, at least as far as space station servicing goes. As I was made to understand, Wallops is the most active NASA range, and it deals almost exclusively with small launches and sounding rockets. Maybe SpaceX can make it work.