NASA Wallops Flight Facility Launch

A photo of a rocket being built with an American flag in the background.

We recently traveled to Virginia to see a rocket launch! Say what?! Yep! There’s a NASA flight facility on Wallops Island which is near Chincoteague Island. We were fortunate to be invited to take part in the launch of the NG-11 mission. Though we’re not scientists, we are space enthusiasts and were happy to be a part of this launch! In this story we’ll do our best to answer some FAQ’s about the launch and what we learned about the space program. Go Cygnus, Go Antares, Go Science!

What was the mission of the NG-11?

The main mission for this launch was to deliver about 7,600 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). The cargo included small science experiments that students designed (go STEM Education!) and will be collecting data on, several mice that will be studied and numerous other investigations. Some of these investigations include topics such as testing the immune response in space, analyzing aging of the arteries in astronauts and bionutrients. To learn more about the mission, head on over to

What is Cygnus?

The Cygnus spacecraft is made up of two primary components: the Pressurized Cargo Module and the Service Module. The cargo module carries whatever the scientists have decided to load onto it and the service module is basically what makes sure it gets where it’s going. In this mission, Cygnus will meet up with the International Space Station where it will then be unloaded. The astronauts on the ISS will then load Cygnus with cargo they no longer need. It’ll basically become a temporary trash facility and then remain in orbit for a while (up to a year) before splashing into the Pacific Ocean.

What is Antares?

A quick Google search will reveal tons of information about Antares the star. But Antares the rocket is an expendable launch system which can get cargo into space. It’s 12.8 feet in diameter and is 139.4 feet tall. The Cygnus Spacecraft is packed into the upper portion of the rocket. For those of you who have been interested in space and launches for a while, you may remember this rocket as Taurus II. It’s the same one, it was just renamed in 2011. Antares, under it’s new name, launched for the first time in 2013.

What happens during a rocket launch?

It depends on who you’re asking.

If you ask a scientist who has been working on the launch you might hear something technical about the launch itself. (Be sure to tune into pre-launch press conferences on NASATV if you’re interested in learning more!)

Technically speaking, the following 9 stages are what happens during a rocket launch:

1: Stage One Ignition
2: Lift Off
3: Main Engine Cut-Off
4: Stage One Separation
5: Fairing Separation
6: Interstage Separation
7: Stage Two Ignition
8: Stage Two Burnout/Orbit Insertion
9: Payload Separation

If you ask a tourist or a local what happens during a launch:

The island gets really crowded! The hotels fill up and the restaurants are busy! It’s a fun and exciting time to be on the island. Everyone is here to see the success of the rocket as it’s a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity to see something go into space. The NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center will be closed for parking on the day of the launch but open for visitors to come and view the rocket. Your best bet is to get a parking spot along the road near the visitor center and get in place as soon as the gate opens. Though there are bleachers, bring your own chair and prepare to see the rocket launch!

When it goes off, depending on where you are and the visibility that day (or night – sometimes they happen early in the morning) you will see a bunch of smoke at the base of the rocket as it launches and then you will see it rise up into the air and a bright orange spot until it gets further and further away. You’ll also hear it and if you’re close enough, feel the roar of energy in your chest.

What’s at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center?

A room full of journalists listening to a press conference.
Pre-launch Press Conference at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center.

The visitor center gives you an up close look at some of the most exciting things happening in the space program. It has on display some out of commission rockets, exhibits about past missions, current missions, history about the flight facility, an auditorium that is used for Press Conferences and even a viewing area for launches. There’s even a gift shop on the premises that sells everything from “space food” to astronaut costumes and t-shirts.

The NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center is open from 10 am – 4 pm daily from July 1 – August 31. It’s open from 10 am – 4 pm on Tuesday’s – Saturday’s from September to June.

If you’re planning a visit, we recommend calling ahead at 757.824.1344

When is the next NASA rocket launch?

Bookmark the NASA Launches and Landings page to stay up to date. This site will give you current information about when and where you can see a rocket go off. Some of the missions will be confirmed with a date and time and others will be updated as the launch approaches. Keep in mind that if you are traveling to see a launch there are many factors that can delay or cancel a launch: weather, unexpected boat traffic, unexpected air traffic, etc. and so it is a good idea to keep your travel plans (hotel, flight, rental car) flexible so that you can shift with ease. At the time of writing, the next launch is set to go off in Cape Canaveral on April 30, 2019 at 4:22 am.

What should I bring to the launch?

  • Binoculars for viewing. You may be several miles from the launch and you’ll want to see what’s going on
  • Camera/cell phone to record and take photos
  • Chair
  • Snacks
  • Sunscreen/Hat

What did you do at the #NASASocial Event?

Inside the belly of a C130!

The #NASASocial event was a two day event. The first day happened on the eve of the launch. We met at 8:00 am sharp, received our badges, and were then introduced to some of the key people in the space program at Wallops. We then received a few tours of the facility, attended a few press conferences, got to meet an actual astronaut, tour the inside of the flight hangar and even go inside a C130 (a huge airplane). It was super organized and well-run. My favorite part of the experience was getting to shake hands with a programmer who helped write the code for the launch. I also got to meet a lot of new friends and of course, see the rocket go off in person!

Recap of the NASA Wallops Flight Facility and NG-11 Mission

A photo of Astronaut Robert Curbeam talking to the group about the NG-11 mission.
Astronaut Robert Curbeam talking to the group about the NG-11 mission.

I loved being able to get a behind the scenes look at what’s happening in space. It was also really amazing being able to see the rocket take off with my own eyes. I highly recommend doing this if you are at all interested. It’s not only a great way to get excited about science and technology but an awesome excuse to take a trip to Chincoteague Island. There’s so many fun things to do on Chincoteague as well as great places to eat. We’ve written about both. You can check them out here:

25 Fun Things to Do on Chincoteague | Best Places to Eat on Chincoteague

Authentic Asheville is Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley. We are freelance writers, photographers, web designers and content creators based in Asheville, North Carolina. Check out our other website for more info!

Published by Erin McGrady

Erin McGrady is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer exploring Asheville and beyond. My work focuses on sharing about LGBTQ safe spaces, camper van life, and the outdoors.

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