NASA's Antares rocket creates sonic and tourism booms

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Whenever an Antares rocket takes off at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, so does the tourism industry, particularly in nearby Chincoteague.

As the space agency counts down to Antares' first launch at the facility in nearly two years, hotels and restaurants are gearing up for a familiar phenomenon: the flood of visitors who come to get a closer view. If the five launches conducted in 2013-14 are any indication, the Oct. 13 liftoff will draw thousands of spectators to the region.

This time, the timing is ideal for business, said Donna Mason, owner of the Waterside Inn on Chincoteague. She wasn't complaining when the launch was postponed five times, dating back to May.

“It’s much better for us all the way around if it’s the offseason," she said. "In the summer, you’re pretty busy anyway. If it happens in the shoulder season or the winter, it’s much better for us.”

The planned 9:13 p.m. launch time also augurs well for business, Mason added. The dark sky should provide a spectacular backdrop for the streaking spacecraft, enticing more visitors than a daytime liftoff might.

The tourism boom neither begins nor ends on the day of the launch, though.

Scores of engineers and other workers tied to the mission make the Eastern Shore their temporary home. They stay for weeks, sometimes months. That activity translates into restaurant meals, hotel bookings and home rentals.

At Wolff's Sandwich Shoppe, it translates into a reliable lunch crowd. The eatery lies in Atlantic, the only point of civilization between Wallops' main base and its barrier island launching grounds.

“They’ve been here for about three months, four months, stepping things up in preparation for launch," owner Ron Wolff said. “They’ve been real good for our business.”

Wallops has been sending rockets skyward dating back to the middle of the last century — a fact not lost on serious rocket fans. The facility generated nearly $2.5 million in tourism activity a year on the shores of Maryland and Virginia, according to a Salisbury University analysis. The study was performed in 2011, before Antares took to the air.

Its first launch in 2013 brought the facility to NASA's forefront. Antares is the biggest liquid-fuel rocket ever flown at the facility.

Orbital ATK, a Dulles-based contractor, inked a $1.9 billion deal in 2008 to ferry cargo over eight flights to the International Space Station. Last January, NASA announced it would be one of three companies that would continue carrying supplies to the space station through 2024 under a second contract.

Orbital's return to Wallops comes nearly two years after its rocket exploded seconds after launch. The intervening time has been given to repairing the launch pad, transferring to a new rocket engine and working back into the space station's busy schedule.

For Chincoteague businesses, the high-profile program represents a marketing opportunity. Previous tie-ins include the Island Creamery's “Rocket Fuel” ice cream and Bill’s Seafood restaurant's menu additions of "Deep Fried Moon Pie" and a "Galactic Martini."

Businesses could use the stimulus right now, said Evelyn Shotwell, executive director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. Her organization postponed the annual Chincoteague Oyster Festival from Oct. 8 to Oct. 15 to dodge the threat posed by Hurricane Matthew.

Once the decision was made, Shotwell said, it couldn't be undone, even after forecasts changed to spare Delmarva from the storm. Attendance will probably suffer because of the rescheduling, she added.

But perhaps the region can make up some of the losses by marketing the two together, Shotwell said. She is formulating new marketing materials urging people to come for the launch and stay for the bivalve feast.


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