If you were lucky enough to witness a flash of light streaking across the sky shortly the first Friday night in October, you were seeing a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket blasting off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island with a robotic Cygnus spacecraft bound for the International Space Station.
You were also seeing evidence that even as the nation is struggling with a devastating pandemic and an unusually contentious election, the space program and industries it has spawned are flourishing. That’s good news for Virginia, home to an increasing amount of the action.
This spacecraft’s mission for NASA is to take nearly 4 tons of supplies and gear to the International Space Station. Its load includes a space toilet, food, hardware and scientific experiments involving cancer research and growing radishes in space, among other things.
For those of us in Hampton Roads and Virginia, the successful launch should come as a heartening reminder of the boost that space flight should provide to the economy of the region and the state.
For years, the NASA facility at Wallops Island has been vital to the economy of Accomack County and nearby areas in Virginia and Maryland. The program accounts for thousands of jobs, many of them highly skilled and well paid, and enhances the quality of life in the region. It also opens up government-contract opportunities for a variety of goods and services, and brings visitors to the region.
Now NASA’s Artemis program, with its “Moon to Mars” mission, is pumping more money into Virginia, and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton is a major player. The mission’s goal is to get astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars. The plan is to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. Astronauts will study the surface of the moon and create habitats where they can live for months at a time.
Before long, NASA hopes to send the first astronauts to Mars.
The economic benefits of this renewed interest in space flight are already being felt in Hampton Roads and elsewhere in Virginia. A recent study from the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center at the University of Chicago found that the “Moon to Mars” mission was responsible for about $300 million in direct economic benefits for Virginia during the 2019 fiscal year. Across Virginia, the study said, NASA is responsible for more than 27,000 jobs, millions of dollars in tax revenues for state and local governments and millions more in economic activity.
That will only grow as the mission swings into high gear.
Langley, where engineers and scientists are designing and testing important technologies, plays a major role in the “Moon to Mars” efforts.
The excitement of the early days of the American space program — rushing to catch up with the Russians, putting the first men on the moon — is history now. But the benefits have enriched our lives in countless ways.
The advances and innovations that have grown out of the space program over the years include high-level computer, laser and other technologies — even those flat-screen TVS — and the smoke detectors, trash compactors, water filters, cordless tools and countless other features we now take for granted in homes. The program has contributed greatly to human health and medicine and to our understanding of the environment and how to protect it. The space program gave us advanced food preservation and packaging and high-tech athletic clothes and shoes. The list goes on and on.
Equally important, the space program has expanded our view of science and the universe. It has taught us to dream, expand our horizons and build for a better future.
And now the push to get Americans back to the moon and on to Mars will open up a whole new range of possibilities that should improve life in this country and around the world.
In the process, the burgeoning aerospace industry should strengthen and further diversify the economy in Hampton Roads and Virginia.
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