East Coast US

I Want to Be an Astronaut – Wallops Island Flight Facility, Virginia

Well, not anymore.

At least not overwhelmingly, though some small part of me will probably always dream of looking back at Earth from outer space. But I did want to be an astronaut, from the time I was a little girl until the day the space shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry and I decided I didn’t want to die a fiery death.

Then I decided maybe astronomy was a better career path. This eventually morphed into astrobiology, but both ideas were scrapped after taking my first physics class and absolutely hating it. Nothing has ever made me feel more stupid than physics – because I’d plug numbers into an equation and it would work and I’d get an answer and I’d feel like I was understanding it – and then I’d find out I actually approached the whole problem completely wrong and my answer wasn’t even close to being correct.

Anyway, when I discovered the NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility Visitor Center in Virginia, the seven-year-old astronaut wannabe in me decided this was absolutely a place we’d be stopping.

Today, the Wallops Island Flight Facility is mainly a lot of giant satellite dishes and antennae in a field across the road from a visitor center. However, before Cape Canaveral was built Wallops Island was the main launch site for NASA missions, including many of the test launches that occurred prior to sending humans into space. Since 1945, over 16,000 launches have occurred at the site. Today, they still launch some unmanned missions from here, including rockets for NASA, NOAA satellites, and other research vessels. Had we been 2 days earlier, we actually could have witnessed a launch, but unfortunately that didn’t work with our schedules.

If you look way off on the horizon in the center of this photo, you can just barely see the launch pad; it’s about 4 miles away from the visitor center

Even though we didn’t see a launch, Wallops Island Flight Facility was still extremely cool. I learned so much about science, astronomy, aeronautics, and the history of NASA and space travel. I’ve since forgotten most of it – you can only retain so much information in one day, it seems. But I do remember learning that the giant research balloons they launch are taller than the Washington Monument, can carry 7600 lbs (3450 kg), rise to an altitude of 32 miles (51.5 km), yet are made of polyethylene that is only 0.0015 inches (0.038 mm) thick. Incredible!


Moon rock!

After touring the entire visitor center and saturating our brains with information, we continued west on Route 175 to the other accessible portion of Assateague Island – the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. We were only here briefly, so I’m just going to tack a couple sentences and a few photos onto the end of this post.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island and is accessible by bridge in the town of Chincoteague. Because it’s a wildlife preserve, it’s relatively undeveloped. There are a few trails, a wildlife loop road (which was completely devoid of wildlife in the middle of the afternoon – not the best time of day to visit), a visitor center, and a lighthouse. We did a little bit of everything and spent maybe an hour there. It was enough to see the sights and learn a little bit more about the island, but you could easily spend an entire day there as well.


Next up: a continuation of our time on the Virginia coast!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: The NASA Wallops Island Visitor Center is located 5 miles (8 km) west of Chincoteague Island, Virginia on Route 175. There’s no physical address but GPS and driving directions can be found here
  • Fees and passes: free!
  • Hours: open daily 10am-4pm July-August and Tues-Sun 10am-4pm the rest of the year; closed holidays
  • Other: There are 14 NASA visitor center locations throughout the US and, similar to the National Park Service, they have a passport and stamps. Unlike the NPS, the NASA Passport is free!

5 thoughts on “I Want to Be an Astronaut – Wallops Island Flight Facility, Virginia”

  1. That’s neat! Seeing a rocket launch would be super cool, though I wouldn’t have the guts to go into space (I’d be too scared of not coming back!). Have you read Tim Peake’s book ‘Ask an Astronaut’? It’s essentially a Q&A on his experience of preparing for life in space, living on the ISS and returning to Earth – I really enjoyed it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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