Kaine announces $103M to replace old Wallops bridge

EASTERN SHORE POST/CAROL VAUGHN From left, Dave Mitchell, acting Goddard Space Flight Center director; David Pierce, NASA Wallops Flight Facility director, and Bob Jameson, NASA Wallops Flight Facility deputy director, speak with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine atop the old Wallops Island bridge on Friday, March 17.

BY CAROL VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine joined NASA and Virginia Space officials Friday on Wallops Island, where Kaine visited the 63-year-old bridge that links the mainland to the island to highlight the securing of $103 million in federal funds to replace it.

Funds for a new bridge were designated in the government funding bill for fiscal year 2023 approved in December.

The humpbacked bridge, built to accomodate vessels that used the now-defunct Intracoastal Waterway, is the only point of access for vehicles to get to launch pads, U.S. Navy buildings, and other facilities on Wallops Island.

Kaine recalled his last visit, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he saw, “There’s this bridge that needs repair to really maximize the use of the launch pads here.”

He said, “We were able to get $100-plus million in the budget we just did in December for that bridge, which is great. That means they can get this under a design-build contract, hopefully by early next year.”

A new, flat, causeway-type bridge will replace the old one, which has deteriorated over the years, in part due to severe weather in the coastal environment.

David Pierce, NASA Wallops Flight Facility director, said the old bridge is at the end of its life after repeated repairs.

“It presents, as a critical asset at NASA, a risk where we wouldn’t be able to bring rocket motors across to the launch pad, so … we are very grateful to both the Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware delegations for securing the funding … to replace the bridge.”

Pierce said the new bridge will allow Rocket Lab and other companies to bring their rockets from the mainland to launch facilities on the island.

“It’s going to be able to take heavier loads and it will allow, for instance, Rocket Lab to transport its rocket vertically over to the launch site,” he said.

A manufacturing and processing facility is under construction on the mainland, just across the bridge, for Rocket Lab’s Neutron rocket.

“Our launch cadence is due to increase from a few orbital launches a year to over 30 launches a year by the end of the decade. This bridge is going to enable that,” Pierce said.

In addition to the money for the bridge, $47 million was designated in the federal legislation to shore up the Wallops Island shoreline to protect around $1.2 billion in launch facilities, according to Pierce. 

Kaine, while on Wallops Island, also visited Rocket Lab’s launch pad, where an Electron rocket successfully launched the evening before, and the Horizontal Integration Facility, where around 60 Northrup Grumman employees are working to ready an Antares rocket for liftoff later this spring.

The company in 11 years in the HIF has seen completion of more than 80 missions, according to Paul Kahl, Northrup Grumman site manager.

“It’s really great to be back at Wallops. I’ve come here since I was lieutenant governor and have just watched it progress,” Kaine said after touring the facility.

“The prospect of having six or seven pads — five are now available, the sixth and seventh are possible — (they) could be used by DoD (Department of Defense) missions, NASA missions, intel missions, commercial missions,” Kaine said, adding, “ … What we want to do is make the investments through NASA that enable this wonderful asset in Virginia just to be used very frequently.”

The Wallops Island facilities are one of four launch sites in the United States from where certain types of missions can be launched, Kaine noted.

“Only Wallops and Florida enable you to do launches to get into equatorial orbit, which is really, really important,” he said.

Kaine also spoke about the economic development benefits to the Eastern Shore, noting Wallops-based activities account for around 2,000 jobs, including with contractors, Virginia Space, and Rocket Lab.

NASA Wallops Flight Facility produces an estimated $70 billion in economic development and affects, directly or indirectly, around 3,200 jobs in Virginia, Kaine said.

“It could be anywhere, but it’s on the Eastern Shore, so people here are really proud of it,” he said.

Pierce said NASA Wallops Flight Facility impacts around 6,000 jobs on Delmarva and has an $1.4 billion economic impact.

Kaine also touted internship programs and employment opportunities for the Shore’s young people.

“I like the Eastern Shore having a really stellar, technology-based workforce and opportunity to inspire young people,” who are more likely to be excited about studying science “if they see it in their backyard,” Kaine said.

“I have a lot of friends on Chincoteague. They’re excited for their kids and grandkids to have this, because, some parts of rural Virginia and rural America, kids may go away to college and they may not come back. … Everybody wants to have a diverse economy where they are, so that young people might go away to be educated but (say) … ‘Wow, I really want to come back because there’s this fantastic opportunity that I can’t get anywhere else in the United States, right here in my back yard,”’ he said.

Kaine said the space industry can provide “some additional pillars” for the local economy, in addition to the Shore’s strong agriculture, aquaculture, and tourism industries.

“We want to be known in Virginia as a space hub,” Kaine said.

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