In the early 1950s, before NASA, before the Space Age even started, you could rightly have called Wallops Island the nation’s leading rocket range. The former private hunting reserve off the coast of Virginia had been converted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to a launch site in 1945, when Cape Canaveral was still five years from firing its first rocket.
It wasn’t long, however, before the main action moved south to Florida, and Wallops, though it continued as a NASA facility, never got the recognition that came to Canaveral or Houston. Instead, it became known as a small, remote outpost for launching suborbital sounding rockets—more than 16,000 and still counting—mainly for scientific purposes.
Recently, as new commercial launch companies have started to gear up, Wallops has become an attractive option for East Coast launches to orbit. Next month, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. is scheduled to test-launch its new Antares rocket from Wallops (officially the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport). That will be followed, starting this summer, by regular launches to the International Space Station for Orbital’s Cygnus cargo ship.
For Wallops it will be a step into the limelight, but hardly the first foray into space. As you can see from the gallery above, the center has been all about rockets and research for almost 70 years.
Pictured above: The Wallops beachfront is newly restored and widened in anticipation of increased launch traffic.The launch pad used by Antares is second from the near end, next to the tall water tower.
June 27, 1945: The first launch from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ new Wallops Island station. These tiny (3.25-inch-diameter) rockets were fired down range to test tracking and radar, in preparation for the first launch of a Tiamat missile a week later, on July 4. World War II hadn’t even ended yet.