A rocket now poised on a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Island, Va., space center holds more than its package of scientific experiments.
It's also carrying the hopes of a Maryland aerospace company, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Virginia development officials who hope it will blast open a gateway to space on Virginia's sleepy Eastern Shore.
The rocket and its METEOR-1 satellite, scheduled to fly tomorrow evening, would be the first commercial spacecraft launched into Earth orbit from Wallops and the first of any kind sent into orbit there since 1985.
NASA and Virginia state officials hope the flight will stimulate more commercial launch business at Wallops, a development drive the state has dubbed "Spaceport Virginia."
"When everybody sees the thing soaring through the clouds that is really proof of the concept, that the Spaceport idea works," said Wayne Woodhams, assistant director for the Center for Commercial Space Infrastructure at Old Dominion University. The center is the operating agent for Virginia's new Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Liftoff was scheduled for 6 p.m. tomorrow for the 2,000-pound METEOR satellite and its cargo of 14 experiments. It is the first launch for the satellite and its 100-ton Conestoga rocket. Two attempts in August were delayed by winds and mechanical problems.
The entire vehicle was designed and assembled by EER Systems Inc., a privately owned aerospace company based in Seabrook in Prince George's County.
NASA officials say the rocket's climb toward space should be visible as far north as Ocean City, about 40 miles away.
If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will reach an orbit 250 miles above the Earth 9 1/2 minutes after liftoff. Twenty to 30 days later, EER controllers in McLean, Va., will separate a "recovery module" containing six of the experiments and return them to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic about 100 miles east of Wallops. The other eight experiments will remain in orbit for up to two years.
Wallops is too small for the safe launch of large rockets, said NASA spokesman Keith Koehler. Although its launch crews have put a few satellites into orbit with small rockets, Wallops' specialty has been suborbital flights -- up into space, then falling back into the ocean -- for scientific and meteorological projects. Forty to 70 go up each year.
Today, however, "the big push is to go smaller on satellites," Mr. Koehler said. "Then you can use smaller rockets, and we are capable of handling the smaller rockets that are being developed," including the Conestoga.
To commercial interests using these smaller vehicles, Wallops hopes to offer lower costs and quicker access to space than they might achieve elsewhere.
For those who need an orbit over more northerly latitudes, Wallops' location offers another advantage.
To reach orbit, a rocket must attain 17,500 mph. Some of that speed -- almost 900 mph -- can be achieved by launching due east, taking full advantage of the eastward rotation of the Earth.
But rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, at about 28 degrees north latitude, must be turned to the northeast to reach an orbit covering all of the continental United States or Europe.
That trajectory gives the rocket only some of the boost available from the Earth's rotation. So the rocket must carry and burn more fuel, adding expense and weight and reducing its payload.
From Wallops Island, at nearly 38 degrees north latitude, rockets can be launched more nearly due east, so their payloads can be bigger.
It's the kind of service some in the communications industry may need for global cellular telephone systems being planned, Mr. Koehler said. Some such systems might require scores of satellites orbiting over northern latitudes.
Virginia, Florida, California, Alaska and Hawaii are working to grab a share of any growth in the small-satellite business.
The trend pleases NASA, which is under severe budget restraints and is eager to turn parts of its work over to private industry. "We think it's very important," said David E. Steitz, a spokesman at NASA headquarters.
Virginia's 3-month-old space flight authority hopes to exploit Wallops' more northern latitude, East Coast location and the availability of Wallops' infrastructure to attract more economic development to the area. Virginia has expressed its interest in having Maryland officials participate.
Mr. Woodhams said market studies suggest that Wallops could be launching as many as eight commercial orbital missions annually a few years from now, attracting a variety of launch providers and support service companies to the lower Eastern Shore.
"We've shown them the way to open up Spaceport Virginia," said Jim Hengle, general manager for EER's space systems group. "The extent to which they can bring in other clients -- that's their challenge."
EER, a contractor at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for many years, has built a $4.5 million launch complex at Wallops. Although the company has launched seven suborbital flights from White Sands, N.M., METEOR-1 will be its first orbital launch and its first from Wallops.
METEOR is an acronym for Multiple Experiment Transporter to Earth Orbit and Return. Mr. Hengle said EER spent $75 million developing its rocket and satellite, about half of that from a federal grant. The METEOR-1 flight will cost $20 million. Its customers are paying an average of $60,000 a pound for the ride.
They include Motorola, Maxwell Laboratories, AEC-Able Engineering, the University of Alabama, the University of Colorado, Clemson University and Texas A&M; University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and NASA.
Several will study microgravity and its effects on protein crystal and plant growth. Others will test spacecraft components, navigational and communications devices. An astronomy experiment will study ultraviolet emissions from the sun.
EER's Conestoga 1620 rocket consists of six CASTOR solid-fuel rockets strapped together around a seventh "core" rocket, all developed by Thiokol Corp.
Four of the CASTOR rockets will ignite at liftoff. They will fall away about a minute later at an altitude of 54,000 feet, and two more will ignite. Two minutes into the flight, those two rockets fall away and the core rocket will fire.
The core rocket will burn for one minute, pushing the satellite to an altitude of 98 miles before burning out and falling away.
After the rocket has coasted for about five minutes and reached an altitude of 248 miles, its Star 48V engine -- produced by Thiokol's Elkton plant -- will ignite and carry the satellite into a circular orbit 250 miles high.
"For the first month, our experiments that are coming back to Earth will be going through their sequence of experimental events," Mr. Hengle said.
Then, the 865-pound "recovery module" will be separated from the rest of METEOR-1. Re-entry begins over Hawaii, with the hTC firing of a small retro-rocket to slow the craft down. Its fiery plunge into the atmosphere will reach its peak over Richmond.
Off the Virginia coast, a 9 1/2 -foot drogue parachute will deploy at 60,000 feet and carry the spacecraft to 10,000 feet. Then, a 60-foot-wide main chute will open and drop the module into the Atlantic.
Tips and directions For people who want to watch the launch:
* Good viewing areas are NASA's Wallops Flight Facility or nearby Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. From the Bay Bridge, follow U.S. 50 east to Salisbury, then U.S. 13 south into Virginia. Turn left on Route 175 and follow signs to the NASA Visitor's Center. Or continue east on Route 175 through Chincoteague and on to Assateague Island. Park in Lot 3. The refuge closes at 8 p.m.
* Time: Tomorrow's launch "window" is from 4:30 p.m. until 7:55 p.m. EDT. Optimum launch time is 6 p.m. For flight updates, call NASA's information line at (804) 824-2050.
* Radio: NASA's station (760 AM) will broadcast live commentary on the launch. So will two FM stations with greater range: WESR-FM (103.3), and WKHI-FM (106.5 and 107.5).