Though n

ot particularly impressive or scientifically important, the first rocket launches from Wallops Island, Va., proved crucial for the team sent to turn a backwater area into a research launch center.

That initial launch of five nearly 9-centimeter in diameter rockets June 27, 1945, helped the Wallops team gain experience and test

launch support systems, including tracking and facilities,

Wallops Flight Facility spokesman Keith Koehler said.

“Up until then rocketry was a new thing,” Koehler said in a June 12 phone interview. Without much expertise in rocket launches at the time, the engineers had to learn how to do it on their own

, he said. That first launch embodied the Wallops’ teams’

do-it-yourself attitude

, which already had been established by Wallops’ parent facility, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., the NASA History Web site said.

The Wallops team learned quickly. Just a few weeks after launching those first rockets, they

successfully launched their

first sounding rocket July 4, 1945, in the first official research launch at the facility, Koehler said.

The Wallops Flight Facility was established in 1945 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in response to a Defense Department


for a test range to provide the military with aeronautical engineering data at transonic speeds, which were unavailable using wind tunnels at the time,


Web site said.

Wallops Island was not NACA’s first choice

to house a rocket launching facility for Langley. Its first choice, Cherry Point, N.C., was close to Langley

, isolated from populous areas, contained a nearby Marine air base, and enabled a flight path over the Atlantic Ocean

. But Cherry Point was ruled out

because its barrier islands, where the tracking sites would be located, were difficult to navigate and the Marine air base objected to the presence of a nearby civilian center, the NASA Web site said.

Wallops Island offered similar advantages,

though it was harder to access than Cherry Point.

The nearby Navy air base

did not object to a civilian presence, and it was easier to access the

tracking sites on its

barrier islands



isolation from the mainland also presented several challenges to its first crew. There were few facilities, like hospitals or power plants, and housing was limited. A

ferry or seaplane was needed to reach the mainland


The first research studies at Wallops were an extension of those at Langley, Koehler said. Researchers at Wallops began by studying the aerodynamic properties of unmanned aircraft models attached to rockets,

he said.

In the 1950s, with technological advances in

wind tunnels and aircraft,

scientists at Wallops shifted their focus

from transonic

to hypersonic and missile research

. Their goal became finding ways to cope

with the extreme heat and aerodynamic pressure of high-speed atmospheric flight

, rather than achieving ever-greater speeds

, the Web site said.

By the late 1950s Wallops began performing near Earth and astronomy studies using sounding rockets, Koehler said.

When NASA was established in 1958, Wallops became an independent

facility – and the only NASA-owned and -operated launch facility

, he said.

In the early 1960s, Wallops began launching

NASA’s Scout rocket

on suborbital and orbital research missions,

Koehler said. The last Scout launched from Wallops

in 1985, he said.

Wallops’ did not loft another orbital rocket for a decade. EER Systems’ Conestoga rocket,

the facility’s first commercial venture, was launched in July 1995, Koehler said.

Koehler said Wallops has looked for opportunities within its capabilities, which include

small commercial launches


Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., selected Wallops June 9

to be the launch site for its Taurus 2 rocket.

In 1982, Wallops was put under the jurisdiction of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

But despite the facilities evolution through the years, Wallops’ mission and focus “hasn’t changed a whole lot,” Koehler said.

Wallops still is NASA’s principal facility for suborbital launches and for

orbital launches that require smaller infrastructure than

the Atlas, Delta or the space shuttle, Koehler said. The jump from sounding rockets to orbital launches with small payloads “is not that great,” he said.