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Shore hopes for an economic wallop from Wallops Island

EASTON — In a cluttered, second-floor conference room above a toy store and jewelry shop, Ron Bettini points to a picture of a small, metallic cube.

It’s called HawkSat-1, the first satellite designed, built, tested and launched entirely on the Eastern Shore. The real thing is hurtling through space more than 100 miles above Earth, testing new technology that Bettini is not at liberty to discuss.

Educators and local economic development officials have high hopes for the aerospace industry here, hinging their optimism to a growing space facility just south of Pocomoke City.

Wallops Flight Facility, an offshoot of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has gained attention and business as Cape Canaveral and facilities associated with the Space Shuttle program have waned.

The 6,000-acre base, an eight-mile drive from the Maryland line, will be launching Taurus II rockets on resupply missions to the International Space Station. Officials there have had preliminary discussions with space tourism companies developing vehicles to launch fare-paying passengers into orbit.

“They’re actually building and testing real flight hardware,” said Bruce Underwood, chief of the facility’s Advanced Projects Office. “It’s almost certainly going to happen. It’s just a question of whether it happens next year or the year after.”

The facility has an economic impact of $188 million annually on the Virginia and Maryland Shore, according to Wallops. It employs 1,050, about 40 percent of whom live in Maryland.

State and local economic development officials expect contractors like Bettini’s Maryland Hawk Institute for Space Sciences to bring more high-paying jobs to the area.

The average aerospace and defense industry job in Maryland pays $93,000 a year, according to the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

Underwood said the military is developing small, “quick response” satellites that could be launched from Wallops instead of Florida and put into orbit over troubled areas quickly. Wallops is also working with builders of commercial rocket and unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs, or drones.

The facility has five launch pads and four runways, including one dedicated to UAVs.

Bettini, Hawk’s CEO, has his 52 employees working on satellites and drones. Hawk builds its own vehicles and contributes to others, including thermal insulation for a satellite orbiting the moon.

“We’re not going to build a Boeing 747 down there,” Bettini said of his fabrication facility in Pocomoke. “We’re not going to do test flights of a 747 down there. But UAVs, that’s an opportunity. That’s an emerging technology.”

Bettini is not alone.

Northrop Grumman moved into a 55,000-square-foot facility in Princess Anne last year and expects to eventually expand the operation to as many as 50 employees from the 25 it started with. The reason for the move — proximity to Wallops.

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore recently built a UAV landing strip on its campus in Princess Anne and plans to offer within the next two years an academic program that will teach students to design, build and repair drones. The Lower Shore Workforce Alliance, through a partnership with Hawk, offers courses in UAV maintenance.

Hawk has grown between 5 percent and 10 percent in recent years, Bettini said, but has fallen short of expectations as the federal funding picture has grown increasingly cloudy.

Still, the Hawk CEO sees tremendous potential in the Shore and his drones.

“UAVs are the future,” he said. “I think every little police department will have their own.”