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Space travel is hard

When you think of outer space exploration, most folks from my generation tend to think of Florida’s Cape Canaveral, rather than Virginia’s Eastern Shore or Wallops Island. However, when it comes to manned space travel or space exploration, there has been a lot more activity in Virginia than Florida the past few years.

You probably know nothing about any of it because the media rarely, if ever, covers launch events. Of course, if it is bad news and something goes wrong, it is headline news. This was the case earlier this week after a rocket blew up at Wallops a few seconds after liftoff. The vehicle, operated by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles was reportedly on a re-supply mission to the International Space Station.

Growing up in South Florida, I saw many space shuttle launches at the Cape. I’ve also seen a few Wallops launches. Every single one of them was a unique experience. Well worth the long drives and, when I was much younger, missing a day or two from school. Manned spaced travel and exploration, detached from a the problems of the brick and mortar world, should inspire you to look up every now and then.

So it was disappointing to watch a rocket blow up at launch. I expect many folks still beating themselves up about it. A lot of work goes into a launch and it must be frustrating as heck when these things happen. The money. The time. And, if I can say these things these days, the pride. But as a NASA satellite engineer told me the day after the mishap, echoing what President John Kennedy said in 1962, “space travel is hard.”

By the way, if history interests you any (and it should), there is a lot of it in that part of the Commonwealth. There have been over 16,000 launches since NASA (and NACA) set up shop on Wallops in 1945. It was buzzing during the Cold War and, for a while after the War “ended,” turned a little sleepy. But it kept plugging away. And today it is seeing a rebirth of sorts.

Virginia has even enacted numerous laws to attract outer space business to the state including the Virginia Space Liability and Immunity Act of 2007 and the Zero G Zero Tax Act of 2008. Taken together, these laws create the conditions that encourage the private sector to take much-needed risks in this important sector of the nation’s economy. The U.S. Congress should take a hint.

A modern-day national outer space policy and legal regime is sorely needed in order, among other things, ditch reliance on foreign powers (i.e., the Russians, for starters) to advance a national space program. All this talk about international this and international that is fine, however, a successful international space program requires strong and robust national programs.

One last historical point about the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  There is a lot more history in this area beyond space travel. It is also happens to be the site where Spanish and English explorers visited the New World as early as the 17th century. Jamestown in nearby, along with Colonial Williamsburg, and about three-hour drive away, Berkeley Plantation (site of the first Thanksgiving in 1619). It is fitting that in the 21st century Virginia continues that great exploration tradition, in outer space.

While there was a fairly problematic mishap this week at Wallops, the good news is that the engineers, scientists, and others who support the program are already working to see what went wrong, fix it, and get back to business. Sure, manned space travel and exploration is hard. If it were easy, another nation would have already landed someone on the moon or another planet (the U.S. should lead the way, again).

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility as well as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport will be very busy for many years. There will be many more launches and they’ll be doing the Wallops Harlem Shake again soon:

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