Wallops Flight Facility, NASA's hidden launch shop

Road Trip 2010: On the Atlantic coast of Virginia, the space agency uses a 6,000-acre facility to build and launch rockets and design high-altitude scientific balloons big enough to hold a sports stadium.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

At the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, NASA designs rockets and high-altitude scientific balloons. It also launches the rockets, and maintains the ability to destroy them if they pose a threat to the public. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.--Imagine a football stadium floating high in the sky, enclosed in material not much thicker than a sandwich bag.

Take away the physical part of the football field, but leave the volume, and you get a sense of the size of the high-altitude balloons that NASA uses to conduct scientific experiments.

Those balloons, as well as the design and manufacture of sub-orbital rockets and the launching into space of government satellites, are among the mandates of the Wallops Flight Facility, a NASA center based here on the Atlantic coast about 160 miles southeast of Washington, D.C.

I got a chance to visit the facility on Thursday, the first stop on Road Trip 2010, my fifth annual geek-centric journey around a region of the U.S. And though I knew that it had a reputation as a center for research into high-altitude balloons, I had no idea just how mammoth the mega-vessels can be.

The biggest balloons can reach 40 million cubic feet of volume and require 20 acres of material, according to Magdi Said, a researcher in NASA's scientific balloons program at Wallops. Those, he added, are for standard zero-pressure balloons that tend to stay aloft for a few days before changes in temperature drain away the gasses that keep them up. But the agency is also working on new, super pressure balloons that don't lose gasses that are meant to stay in the air for up to 100 days anywhere in the world.

High-altitude work flourishes at NASA (photos)

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Getting vessels of many kinds aloft, of course, is a main NASA mission, and at Wallops, that's no different. Here, away from the glare and the spotlight that shines on places like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or the Johnson Space Center in Houston, research can get done without everyone watching. And that means, in an environment where quick turnaround research and development is the main way of life, that projects usually go from concept to high altitude in two years or less.

On Thursday morning, students and their advisers participating in an annual program called RockOn launched their own research rocket, a sub-orbital shot that went as high as 75 miles before falling back to Earth. The program is a "crash course" in rocketry for university students, according to NASA spokesperson Keith Koehler.

And sub-orbital launches are a big part of what goes on at Wallops. On average the facility launches something about once a month, be it a sub-orbital research-oriented rocket or one intended to put a Department of Defense satellite into space.

Since 2001, Wallops has been launching Minotaur I rockets--vehicles that retain the first and second stage from old Minuteman missiles--in order to put satellites in space. But in 2011, the facility will add the new Taurus 2 rocket with the goal of flying supplies to the International Space Station. Those launches will be done by commercial companies, like Orbital and SpaceX.

In order to send up those Taurus 2s, Wallops' partner, the Mid-Atlantic Region Spaceport (MARS)--a consortium run by the commonwealth of Virginia and the state of Maryland--is building a new launch pad. Known as Pad 0A, it will accompany the nearby 0B and employ a new system for constructing rockets.

A rocket being launched at the Wallops Flight Facility. NASA

Koehler explained that the Taurus 2s will be built on their side rather than having their stages stacked, as is the case with rockets at Kennedy Space Center. Then, having been put together on a newly constructed ramp, they will be moved--still on their side--to an as-yet built gantry and then lifted into vertical position.

At the same time, the gantry at Pad 0B is being raised a few levels so that it can accommodate its own new rocket, the Minotaur 5, which in 2013 will be used for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), a lunar mission to analyze the moon's atmosphere and dust environment.

That project, Koehler said, will be the first launch from the Wallops Flight Center to go beyond the Earth's orbit.

Launch sheds
Then, there's a third way that rockets are launched at Wallops. Sub-orbital rockets, like the RockOn vehicle, are sent up from one of three white, unassuming sheds located along the same north-south close-to-waterfront path as Pads 0B and, soon, 0A. Here, the rockets are constructed by bringing in motors and other elements through the roll-up doors of the sheds. When finished and ready to shoot into the sky, the rockets aren't moved. Instead, it's the sheds that get out of the way, moved away from the rockets on rails. Then the rockets are raised and launched.

This area is shared by NASA and the U.S. Navy, which originally set up a Naval station along this piece of the Atlantic coast--not far from the former Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. The Navy needed a site not far from the lab that was also close to water. And that's why the site here was chosen.

Koehler explained that in 1945, NASA began sharing the space for rocket launches, and when the Navy left in 1959, it took over as the sole resident. But in 1985, the Navy returned and now has a series of missions on the base, including the training of personnel who will be heading out onto one of various kinds of ships.

Not far from the launch sheds, the Navy maintains three buildings, two of which look suspiciously--in profile, at least--like ships. One is used to train personnel on the systems and technology of aircraft carriers; a second is for training those headed for Aegis cruisers and destroyers; and the third is intended for those who will eventually be deployed on next-generation Naval ships.

The U.S. Navy also maintains facilities at Wallops, including this building, which is used to train personnel on the Aegis cruiser and destroyer. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

All told, NASA keeps about 1,000 people busy at Wallops, while the Navy has around 300 people there. And there are also 90 members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who are on hand to man command-and-control of that agency's weather satellites.

Many projects
In the middle of the Wallops site is the Sounding Rocket Facility, a "one-stop shop" for building sub-orbital rockets, explains Koehler. Here, rockets are built more or less from the ground up, often using surplus military motors that cost NASA little or nothing.

At any given time, the facility may be working on as many as 60 different projects, whether they're in the design, fabrication, testing, launch, or analysis stages. The rockets built here have altitude ranges of between 25 and 800 miles and can serve just about any research purpose one can imagine.

Plus, while many of the rockets are launched here, NASA also takes Wallops-designed vehicles on the road, for example, to Alaska to study the science of the aurora borealis.

Similarly, the balloons being designed at Wallops--they're made and launched at separate facilities in Texas--have a wide range of missions, and sizes. They can be as tall as the Washington Monument, and, as mentioned above, contain the volume of a football stadium.

Currently, the super pressure program is working on ramping up to the size of the zero-pressure balloons. Already, in 2009, NASA put a 7 million cubic foot super pressure balloon up for 100 days and is now looking into another flight that would be double the size, or 14 million cubic feet. And the goal, according to Said, is to craft and launch a 26 million cubic foot super pressure balloon that would be capable of carrying a payload of as much as 8,000 pounds for 100 days.

In general, the balloons designed here are used in astrophysics missions meant to gather data on gamma rays, X-rays, and similar particles, explained Said. Wallops is also working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on designing "planetary balloons" that could probe the surfaces of Mars or Venus, but it will likely be at least five years before that research bears fruit. In the interim, the typical client for such a balloon is a university professor or a NASA scientist. "They build the payload and we give them a lift," joked Said.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.