07/05/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

America's Nerdiest Destination: Virginia's Emerging Space Coast (PHOTOS)

A summer ago, as NASA astronauts prepped for the final mission of the 30-year Shuttle program, Florida's Space Coast cashed in for the last time on gawkers arriving to witness lift off: the smoke, the noise, the flames. An era of space tourism had come to an end.

Though the next era of space tourism will likely be dominated by Virgin Galactic, Space X and other companies hoping to sell tickets to the great beyond, those dreams have yet to be realized. In the meantime, a generation of Carl Sagan readers, Trekkies and star watchers had been loosed from Cape Canaveral's orbit. Nerd tourists could head to the spaceport in the New Mexican desert, Area 51 or Wright Brother National Memorial, but they no longer had a definitive vector.

Then, in April, the retired shuttle Discovery arrived in Washington and highlighted the host of other space-centric attractions coming into their own. Nerd tourists can now access a diversity of museums, launch facilities and geek-friendly attractions without driving farther than a few hours from Dulles International.

Eager to join the mid-Atlantic's new science club, I set out for coastal Virginia on a voyage of terrestrial exploration.

My trip to the area started out in the least nerdy way possible, watching the NBA finals at a restaurant in the "drive till you qualify" exurb of Ashburn, VA. It didn't take long though before the names Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were being bandied about at the bar. At a table behind me, a guy was telling a story about Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

In the morning, I drove a few miles to The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a fantastic extension of the National Air and Space Museum right next to Dulles International. The arrival of Discovery has been a boon for the museum, which was opened in 2003 but still lives in the shadow of its sister facility on the Mall despite housing the Enola Gay, one of the few remaining SR-71 Blackbirds and one of the 20 Concordes ever built. The Discovery is now the banner attraction.

"It's the biggest thing that's happened here," says Jack Dailey, the retired four-star general who serves as director of the museum. He notes that Udvar-Hazy has "the largest and most diverse collection of its kind in the world," including a significant number of aircraft that are the last surviving examples of their kind.

One reason Udvar-Hazy has struggled to attract visitors may well be the delay in building a Metro link to Dulles and by extension the museum. There is still no public transportation to Udvar-Hazy from the District, save a grueling hour-long bus ride from L'Enfant Plaza that most visitors avoid. I drove a rental car, but there is a shuttle bus from Dulles, which brings in about 2,000 visitors a month, including many international visitors who arrive early for evening flights and then trickle over.

"Everyone has heard of the Smithsonian, but they don't really know what it is," Dailey says. "We want to inspire learning."

To that end, docents lead tours of the collection, including some who have flown the actual aircraft on display. The cavernous hangar that houses most of the museum collection -- Space Shuttle, military jets, civilian aircraft, helicopters, memorabilia -- also houses a number of simulators for visitors, displays on the origins of powered human flight and a mock-up of an air traffic control center with explainers on live ATC audio. The center also hosts a series of educational programs and an annual "Become a Pilot Day," with static displays of aircraft not seen in the regular collection.

After a quick refueling stop, I drove south on I-95 to I-64, headed for the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. A current show about shipwrecks -- and the survival thereof -- is a chilling reminder of all that can (and has) gone wrong on the high seas. A life jacket from the Costa Concordia is a particularly poignant sight; other stories including those of Titanic survivors and Steven Callahan are also fascinating.

Newport News is also home to Jefferson Lab, one of the country’s 17 national laboratories. But tours of the facility and its particle accelerator are few and far between: Jefferson holds one open house day every two years and scheduling visits outside that time is such an onerous process that I didn’t bother.

Nerds would be better off trying one of the Norfolk itineraries on SCVNGR, the geo-social game for smartphones. I had just begun to explore the area's hidden spots with the app when a summer thunderstorm dropped more than two inches of rain and left the streets flooded. I braved the storm for a bit, but after seeing a car almost completely submerged in a flooded underpass on Colley Avenue, I bailed on my smartphone guide and retired to Mermaid Winery to ride out the storm with a glass of wine in hand. I watched wet give way to dark.

In the morning, I took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, itself a 20-mile-long engineering marvel worth seeing, north toward Wallops Flight Facility, a launch base that predates the creation of NASA and is, due to the end of the Shuttle program, one of the agency’s premier research installations. A sprawling, coastal site near Chincoteague Island, Wallops is primarily focused on the launch of sounding rockets and high-altitude balloons, two platforms for suborbital scientific missions. Two days before my visit, an Orion rocket had been launched carrying 17 different experiments to an altitude of 73 miles, barely breaking the 62-mile-high Karman Line that defines the start of space.

Since I missed the launch, I had to settle for the underwhelming visitor’s center, which is predictably less impressive than the facilities at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. More interesting but less visible is behind-the-scenes work happening at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a public-private partnership that’s looking to bring orbital flights to Wallops.

Orbital Sciences Corporation, one of many aerospace companies capitalizing on NASA’s newly expanded reliance on private contractors, has developed the Antares, which is scheduled to fly from Virginia’s Space Coast soon, though an announced August launch date is now under review, NASA says. After that test flight, another mission could launch before the end of 2012, with semi-annual International Space Station resupply runs to follow. That would give fans of space flight a more exciting reason to visit than to watch rockets that just barely leave the atmosphere.

The future could look like the recent history of Cape Canaveral, a carnival atmosphere in the days leading up to launch, families camped out on the coast, cameras trained on launch pads, miniature American flags waving in the breeze. Hotels and attractions would pop up to cater to space tourists; fishing trips and kayak rentals would add diversity for families looking to plan summer vacations around launch schedules. The nearby Assateague Island National Seashore would see more visitors as this quiet part of the country is re-discovered.

But that hasn't happened yet.

Driving back to Washington, I considered the paradox of a having Space Coast so defined by the promise of the future and so comfortable resting on suborbital laurels. Here’s hoping the sight of Discovery, now parked and scuffed from the trials of 148 million miles traveled over 39 successful missions, will inspire the next generation of space-farers who will, one day, be lifting off from the nerdiest stretch of coastline in the nation. But the question remains: When will we being coming to watch?