Maryland officials should get more economic bang from the Wallops Flight Facility — just over the line in Virginia — by capitalizing on space tourism and the potential from unmanned aircraft, according to a new study.

The report, commissioned by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's complex on Wallops Island already has an effect on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But there's potential for more.

One possibility: attracting more people to see rockets blasted into space from Wallops. Columbia-based LJT & Associates, an aerospace services firm that prepared the report, said it saw a "tremendous growth opportunity" there for Maryland's Eastern Shore and suggested that both government agencies and businesses should work to build up such tourism from the Northeast.

"Instead of traveling to Florida, interested viewers will be capable of day trips and overnight trips to the area to view the launch," LJT wrote in the report.

The Maryland counties near Wallops — Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester — could open a space museum, improve launch observation areas or even try to attract a space-related theme park, the study said.

Michael Pennington, executive director of the Tri-County Council for the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, which managed the study for the state, said Florida's Cape Canaveral has a significantly more developed tourism industry than Wallops.

"We could do a lot more work in trying to take advantage of that," he said.

Wallops, which first launched a rocket into space in 1961, has become a primary NASA launch facility for unmanned space flights, serving the International Space Station, the Defense Department and commercial customers.

Daraius Irani, executive director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, thinks a museum and similar educational efforts — like a space camp — make sense.

"There are diehard people who want to see rocket launches," he said. "You see around Cape Canaveral huge amounts of spectators watching them. So I think it's an opportunity."

But he gives a thumbs down to the idea of a theme park.

"It would carnivalize it," Irani said. "That's what you probably don't want to do."

Memo Diriker, director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University, said space-related tourism does offer potential for the area. But he sees bigger possibilities from unmanned aerial systems, an area the study also touches on.

Once the federal government establishes rules for how drones can be used commercially, "then it's going to go beyond the current defense uses," Diriker said.

"If you're a company doing your testing here, logic dictates that you're going to do your future production here," he said. "If you're doing that, you're creating all kinds of opportunities."

Maryland's Lower Shore needs more opportunities. Somerset and Worcester counties' average unemployment rates topped 10 percent last year, substantially higher than the state overall. The jobless rate in Wicomico County, where Salisbury is located, averaged 8.4 percent.

Ursula Powidzki, assistant secretary of business and enterprise development at the state's Department of Business and Economic Development, said helping Wallops grow is the critical first step to seeing more ripples from the facility.

It needs more infrastructure and is running out of room to boot, she said. The study suggests that private processing and launch sites could be established nearby.

A bigger Wallops could mean more commercial space flights — some already launch from there — and more potential drone business, Powidzki said. She also sees Wallops growth as the key to more tourism.

"In order for this to be like a Cape Canaveral, you need a lot more activity," she said.

Powidzki said state and local officials want to coordinate with Virginia to work on Wallops together, whether on funding initiatives or marketing the area to companies in the space and drone sectors. Both states would benefit from such an effort, she said.

"If you want really significant supply chain impact, and everything that comes with that — more companies, more jobs, more demand for educational training in this area — then the capacity at Wallops needs to expand," she said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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