This week, a commercial "freighter" rocket that began its journey into space last Wednesday about 35 miles south of Ocean City is due to dock with the International Space Station, delivering 1,300 pounds of cargo. It will eventually be loaded up with trash and sent on its way to burn up on atmospheric re-entry over the South Pacific.
Cygnus isn't the first unmanned rocket to be launched out of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., which has been in the research rocket business since World War II. But it may be among the most highly anticipated. It was built by a private company, Orbital Sciences Corp., and ushers in a new, big-time space travel era for Wallops.
Earlier this month, Wallops reached another milestone. It launched its first mission to the moon, sending a robotic explorer known as LADEE — Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer — into an eventual lunar orbit where it will study the moon's atmosphere. To witness two such high-profile missions staged back-to-back from Wallops was unthinkable back in the 1990s when NASA was considering shuttering the facility.
No longer will the barrier island be considered an obscure outpost of science. Instead, it has the potential to become a major launching pad for the U.S. space program. Certainly, it will never be on the scale of Cape Canaveral or Johnson Space Center in Houston, but it could become the equivalent of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport — a smaller, less traffic-congested, ideally-located and more affordable starting point for travel.
That distinct possibility represents an economic coup not just for Virginia but for Maryland as well. A stone's throw from Chincoteague and Assateague islands, Wallops has long been closely linked to Maryland's Eastern Shore, drawing workers from nearby Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties. The benefit to the region is significant — more than 1,600 jobs and nearly $400 million in economic impact, according to a 2011 Salisbury University study.
Such jobs are a prize worth pursuing. From entry-level technician to lead scientist, they are held by highly paid, highly skilled and highly educated individuals. Should Cygnus succeed and land a long-term NASA contract, the sky may literally be the only limit. The Wallops spaceport could support many more such public-private partnerships in space exploration and science.
Nor is this benefit wholly limited to the Lower Shore. Orbital Sciences employees hundreds of people in Greenbelt where the Cygnus craft was developed. The goal is to serve not only government but commercial spaceflight customers. Even the impact on tourism could prove significant as space-junkies travel to the Shore to witness major launches.
Is Maryland doing everything possible to support this venture? Certainly, its elected officials have been helpful, particularly U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who has long championed NASA generally and Wallops and other local facilities specifically. But Maryland and the Shore counties must also take steps to attract aerospace professionals and their families by investing in the kinds of lifestyle amenities they seek — good roads and transportation, safe and attractive communities with public assets like museums and parks, quality health care and child care and first-class public schools, colleges and universities.
Rock-bottom tax rates? Lax environmental laws? "Anything goes" development policies? Not usually high on the list for highly-educated white collar professionals or their ilk.
If Maryland is to maximize this opportunity, state officials should heed a soon-to-be-released report prepared by consultants LJT & Associates of Columbia for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. The recommendations include cultivating partnerships with University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Salisbury University, wooing space transport company SpaceX to Wallops, and investing in an air/space museum to boost tourism.
Earlier this month, UMES broke ground for a new $91.5 million science building that William Wrobel, Wallops' director, heralded as a sign of big things to come for the region. "We need your engineering students to be part of that exciting future," he said. To which we would only add, we'll take you up on that offer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun