Tuesday night treated me to the first space launch I’d seen in person–meaning close enough to hear it–since 2018. And unlike the previous three launches that I have been privileged to experience from that close, this one did not require a flight to Florida.
Instead, only a three-hour drive lay between my house and Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, hosted at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. (Shout out to Ars Technica’s science writer John Timmer for offering a lift.) The occasion was Rocket Lab’s U.S. debut of its Electron rocket, something I had made two earlier trips to Wallops in December to see before those launch attempts got called off.
Rocket Lab, a startup that first launched Electron from its New Zealand facility in 2017 and had conducted 31 missions from there since, is the newest tenant at Wallops. But this site across an inlet from Chincoteague saw its first liftoff much earlier–in 1945, five years before Cape Canaveral’s first launch. It’s had a quieter existence since, with recent Wallops headlines featuring a flight or two a year of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets to send Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. They remain the only space launches that I’ve seen, faintly, from my house.
A press pass issued by Rocket Lab granted a much closer view of its “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission, just two miles away from a spare concrete pad next to the Atlantic. At ignition about 40 minutes after sunset, Electron lit up the shore, a brilliant beacon shooting into the sky. The sound rolled out to us about two seconds later–a steady low-frequency roar that might have been an especially loud jet engine, except jets can’t shoot anything into Earth orbit. A clear sky let me track the rocket through first-stage separation, then follow the second stage as its exhaust left a plume dozens of miles up.
If you’re reading this around the D.C. area, you should have multiple chances to experience that, as Rocket Lab plans four to six launches from Wallops this year. Things to know in advance:
• The no-stopping offseason drive should be barely three hours from downtown D.C. to the Wallops visitor center, but woe betide anybody who hopes to make the trip that quickly on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
• The range at Wallops doesn’t shout “space flights here,” lacking the giant gantries of the Kennedy Space Center; the tallest structure is a water tower emblazoned with NASA’s “meatball” circular blue logo.
• Wireless coverage can get really bad, so you should not bank on being able to Instagram launch photos.
• Don’t expect the same show you’d get at a KSC launch. At liftoff, Electron’s thrust is 43,000 pounds, while at launch Antares (with one launch left this year) is good for 864,000 pounds. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have 1.7 and 5.1 million pounds of sea-level thrust sending them skyward. But while you won’t have the experience of feeling a giant rocket’s sound rush over you like an acoustic avalanche, it is still a kind of magic to see something people made leave the ground and soar into the black, all the way to space.
• You can, however, see a launch from closer than the Cape allows. A launch-viewing guide from photographer Kyle Henry lists one location, not always open, 1.7 miles from the pad, with an always-open spot 2.2 miles away. The NASA Wallops Visitor Center is another option, about 7 miles away.
• If you can’t make the trip, you should still be able to see a Wallops launch from around D.C. That’s more easily done at night, when you don’t have to distinguish one contrail from everything else in the sky; you just have to spot a rocket’s red glare.