Rocket launch set tomorrow from NASA's Shore facility

The Baltimore Sun

All systems appeared to be "go" for tomorrow's planned 7 a.m. liftoff of one of the biggest rockets ever launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, 40 miles south of Ocean City.

The four-stage Minotaur I rocket will carry a pair of government satellites. If it blasts off on time and skies are clear, the rocket's climb toward orbit might be visible hundreds of miles from the seaside launch pad.

The launch window extends from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m., with further opportunities daily through Dec. 20.

A success would mark the first commercial launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility - an attempt in 1995 ended in failure. The satellites would become the first to reach orbit from the island launch pad in 21 years.

The flight will also mark the debut of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), a joint venture financed by Maryland and Virginia.

"We're ready to go. The rocket and the satellites are ready to go," said Barry Beneski, a spokesman for Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based company that is providing the launch services to NASA and the Air Force.

The Minotaur I rocket was assembled by Orbital from a pair of surplus Titan missiles and two Pegasus rockets.

On board is TacSat-2, an 814-pound Air Force satellite designed to demonstrate a variety of orbital technologies, as well as the Pentagon's ability to design, build and orbit a satellite in just 15 months.

NASA's Ames Research Center in California will also orbit GeneSat-1, a 22-pound "micro-satellite" carrying a package of biological experiments.

Economic development officials in both states are hoping a successful launch will attract more commercial launch business to their new seaside pad, and more aerospace jobs to the lower Eastern Shore.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who will chair the subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget when the new Congress in sworn in next month, called the launch "another great step in Wallops' history, continuing to spur growth within our local communities and economies."

The launch should be clearly visible from Maryland and Virginia beaches. The best place to watch will be from the southern end of Assateague Island, which will open at 6 a.m. Sunrise at the beach tomorrow is at 7:07 a.m. In Baltimore it's at 7:16 a.m.

If skies are very clear, the rocket's climb toward an orbit 254 miles high should be visible from much of the Eastern Shore, as far away as Baltimore (115 miles away) and Long Island (200 miles).

It might be visible much farther away, especially if the launch goes off at 7, before the skies brighten and wash out the view, said Joe Rao, a sky-watch columnist with

"I calculated the third-stage burn ... could be visible for as much as 800 miles from Wallops, in all directions," he said. In fact, "folks who live out near Hagerstown will have a darker sky and a better view than someone out near the coast." Sunrise in Hagerstown tomorrow is not until 7:21 a.m.

Observers in the Baltimore-Washington area will need an elevated location, with an unobstructed view of the southeastern horizon.

Assuming a 7 a.m. liftoff, the rocket will rise from the predawn darkness on the launch pad and climb into the direct sunlight atop a column of smoke. Then it will arc toward the southeast and away from the coast.

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