WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — An untested commercial spacecraft blasted off on its first trek to the International Space Station today (Sept. 18), kicking off a major demonstration mision for its Virginia-based builders and NASA.
The unmanned Cygnus spacecraft and its Antares rocket soared into orbit with a tremendous roar at 10:58 a.m. EDT (1458 GMT) today from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility here — a huge success for the commercial spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corp., which built both vehicles. The spacecraft is now chasing the space station and is due to arrive early Sunday (Sept. 22), when it will be captured by astronauts using the outpost's robotic arm.
"Antares is the largest rocket that we've ever developed, and this will be the first payload that we've ever developed to rendezvous directly and autonomously of this size," said Frank Culbertson, Orbital's executive vice president. "It's been a long road to get to this point." [See photos of the Cygnus spacecraft's first launch]
The launch was delayed one day due to a technical glitch during the rocket's trip to its seaside pad. But the Wednesday liftoff appeared to go off smoothly, and Cygnus and Antares climbed into a clear blue sky.
During the countdown, NASA had to evacuate four homes around the launch area as a safety precaution in the unlikely chance the Antares rocket exploded during liftoff and blew out their windows.
A private spaceship rises
Orbital Sciences has been developing the bus-size Cygnus spacecraft since 2008, when NASA picked the Dulles-based company as one of two private spaceflight firms to participate in its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Under that program, Orbital received $288 million to develop Cygnus and Antares. The company later secured a $1.9 billion contract to provide full eight full delivery flights to the space station for NASA using the spacecraft.
"This is really a new way of doing business for NASA," said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's program manager for commercial crew and cargo. "It is a shared cost. We became an investor and advisor with Orbital."
With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency is depending on new commercial spacecraft like Orbital's Cygnus to keep the space station stocked with supplies. NASA eventually plans to use private spaceships to ferry American astronauts to and from the space station.
Cygnus is the second commercial spacecraft to launch toward the space station for NASA. The first private spaceship to visit the space station was the robotic Dragon space capsule built by billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX, a company based in Hawthorne, Calif.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion deal to provide 12 cargo delivery flights to the station for NASA using the Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rockets. Two of those missions have already flown, most recently in March of this year. SpaceX's Dragon space capsules have a heat shield that allows them to return cargo back to Earth. [See photos of Dragon's 2nd cargo delivery mission]