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A traveler’s guide to rocket launches at Wallops Island

Onlookers at Wallops Island
Onlookers at Wallops Island. Photo: Paul Roberts

The wind howled the night before Wallops NASA opened a seven-day launch window for their Antares rocket/Cygnus spacecraft resupply mission to the international space station. Gusts reached 28 miles per hour, which sometimes shook the hotel room in which we stayed. The forecast for the next day called for higher winds. As the walls groaned under the force of the squall, my wife Amy and I nervously glanced at each other, “can NASA launch a rocket in this kind of weather?” Here's what we did to watch a rocket launch at Wallops Island, plus some tips for what you can do to see the next one scheduled for this summer.

Wallops Island at night
Wind driven waves crest in a normally placid inlet.

Getting There
From the mainland, it’s a long trek to the northeastern-most part of Virginia to reach Wallops and Chincoteague Islands. Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the views are remarkable. Driving up the Delmarva Peninsula, the scenery is bucolic and serene.

NASA Wallops flight facility sits just south of the Maryland border. It’s a former World War Two airfield that became a NACA (NASA’s predecessor) rocket testing range in the late 1940s, where early hypersonic aircraft designs were tested with flights over the Atlantic Ocean.

Chincoteague Island lies directly across Queen Sound Channel from Wallops Island, and it overlooks launchpad 0-A, where twice a year NASA and Northrop Grumman launch Antares rockets to send experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. Though Amy and I aren’t anywhere close to being rocket geeks ( I never even launched a model rocket until my late twenties), we do like to occasionally visit Chincoteague Island, and every time we go there we’ve been curious about seeing a rocket launch. This time, we coordinated a trip to the island with a scheduled winter launch.

Where to Stay
February is the off season for this ocean-front tourist destination. There are a lot of hotels on Main Street in Chincoteague, and room availability is good during this time of year. Not so much in the summer. Rocket launches can be seen from most hotel balconies overlooking Queen Sound Channel, though the launchpad itself is blocked by other buildings in town. Further south on Main Street you can find many vacation rental properties with a good view of Wallops. Many of the restaurants are closed for the season, so choices are limited, but the food, especially the seafood, is quite good.

hotel balconies
Hotels on Chincoteague’s Main Street have many balconies facing Wallops Island.
Waterfront Park entrance
Main Street Entrance to Waterfront Park.
Waterfront Park
Waterfront Park has clear views of the sky, but launchpad 0-A is obstructed by buildings.

Where to Watch
The NASA website lists one location on Chincoteague to see a rocket launch, though there are actually a few places to watch. All of them are about 7 to 9 miles from the actual launch pad. NASA Wallops visitor center on the Delmarva has an excellent view and is the closest to the launchpad at 7.4 miles. It even has a grandstand to watch from. But, this year, Kevin Koehler of NASA says, “the Visitor Center was closed because of COVID restrictions. We hope to have it open soon.” A short walk from the hotels on Main Street is Waterfront Park (9.25 miles), an open public area where people often gather to observe rockets, but like the hotel views, the launchpad is obstructed. On the east side of Chincoteague, Maddox Boulevard turns into a causeway and bridge that leads to Assateague Island National Wildlife Refuge. The causeway (9.57 miles) traverses a marsh and has an elevated walkway with a direct, though distant view of launchpad 0-A.

Map of Launch viewing areas
Launch viewing areas

The day before the launch window opened, Amy and I scouted all the viewing areas, and even drove to a beach parking lot on Assateague Island (8.5 miles). This view of the launchpad was the best we had seen, so we decided this was where we would watch the Antares rocket fly. I was curious why NASA hadn’t listed this prime viewing location.

The Launch
Saturday morning, February the 19th, there were no clouds in the sky, but a stiff wind was still blowing, at times, making the winter air brutally cold. But, the windspeed was well below the forecast 30 mile per hour gusts, and a quick check online showed the countdown had begun.

We arrived at the causeway to Assateague about an hour and a half early to stake out a spot on the beach. But, we were met by a large lighted VDOT sign saying the refuge was closed due to the rocket launch. No wonder it wasn’t a listed viewing area. We instead chose to watch from the elevated walkway. Finding a place to park is a chore. We saw many people park at spots along Maddox Boulevard; the Chincoteague visitor’s center, the Chincoteague Museum, and other places. As the area filled up, people began parking alongside the causeway road. Police patrolled frequently, but they didn’t seem to mind.

Elevated walkway
People lining the elevated walkway for the Antares/Cygnus launch.

 

elevated walkway
The distant but direct view to Launchpad 0-A.

Along the causeway, people brought camp chairs, binoculars, high powered monocular telescopes, and cameras with very long lens. They brought their kids (one toddler was dressed in a spacesuit) and they even brought their dogs. I met people who came from as far as Gettysburg, PA, and New Jersey, just to see the Antares. I scouted Wallops Island through a zoom lens on my camera and could just make out the rocket staged next to a lofty water tower.

About ten minutes before the scheduled 12:40 p.m. launch time, sirens blared across Chincoteague, presumably a warning that the launch was imminent. We could just make out a large vehicle driving back and forth across the southern tip of the island. Keith Koehler says, “there is a safety zone for the launch. [For instance] the south end of Assateague Island is typically closed. The zone will vary somewhat depending on wind direction and speed.” There are also flight and maritime restrictions. Keith adds, “an errant aircraft, and even an errant boat within the safety zone can stop the launch.”

Everyone on the causeway eagerly looked at their watches and phones to monitor the time. Still, many of us were surprised when the actual launch happened. First there was smoke, then a über bright orange flame. The rocket shot into the air and arced overhead toward the sun. It was perhaps several thousand feet in the air when the sound finally reached us on the causeway. The engine roared, rumbled and crackled. Antares flew in front of the sun and we briefly lost sight of it, but contrails appeared and we then tracked it into the blue sky. Eventually, it curved so far over our heads and behind us that we had to turn around to see it. At that point, Antares seemed to fly parallel with the horizon. And then, it was gone. It all happened so very fast: just a minute or two.

I tried to take a video of the launch with my iPad, but I fumbled with it in the last few seconds and missed the launch. I’d suggest putting down your camera and just watch the rocket streak across the sky.

Watch this NASA Video of the Antares Winter Launch

This time the Antares rocket successfully launched on the first try. It reached the ISS two days later, on the morning of February 21st. Antares carried experiments to test tumor-treating drugs, hydrogen sensors, new lithium ion batteries, plus experiments to grow plants in space. It also carried food, clothing and other every day items for the astronauts to survive in space. As soon as this mission finished, NASA and Northrop Grumman started preparing for the next Antares launch in late summer 2022.

Walking back to the car you immediately start thinking about the implications of what you just saw. There’s a lot of intellect, engineering, effort, and the will, to support a handful of people up in orbit who are working to advance humanity. Stepping off the elevated walkway, Amy said, “It’s amazing that this giant flaming stick actually does exactly what we want it to do.”  It is, isn’t it?

Article by: Paul Tait Roberts, filmmaker and the author of the black comedy novel Chincoteague Bugs.