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NASA scientists and engineers are hoping this week's rocket launch from Wallops Island in Virginia may be a sign of the commonwealth's increasing role in the space industry. The launch of a rocket Monday carrying an inflatable heat shield was a success, according to Kathy Barnstorff, a spokeswoman for the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
"If you can pack an inflatable inside a rocket, send it up into space and then inflate it while you are in space, that means you might be able to take even more instruments and more gear," Barnstorff says.
It survived the 20-minute flight through the earth's atmosphere at speeds of up to 7,600 mph. Then, the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment separated from the launch vehicle's nose cone approximately 300 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.
Scientists wanted to see if a space capsule can use an inflatable outer shell to slow and protect itself as it enters an atmosphere.
"It's a pretty exciting time for NASA because we are looking at these really cool destinations and trying to get even further out into the solar system like perhaps even someday landing humans on Mars," says Barnstorff.
Although NASA's space shuttle program has ended, Wallops Island director Bill Wrobel hopes the facility could gain because of the private space industry.
"Orbital Sciences is planning to launch their Antares vehicle out of here this fall, and so that will be spectacular," Wrobel says. "And they have a number of those missions, eight of them, coming up over the next couple of years."
That could mean even more new jobs in Virginia's burgeoning space industry.
"There's clearly been a lot of folks who have been working the launch pad for the state of Virginia, and that has certainly brought in some jobs," Wrobel says.
Next month, NASA plans to land a science laboratory on Mars — a mission that will benefit from this week's rocket launch on Wallops Island.