ATLANTIC, Va. – A company contracted by NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station successfully launched a rocket Sunday in a test of its ability to send a cargo ship aloft.
About 10 minutes after the launch from Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles declared the test a success after observing a practice payload reach orbit and safely separate from the rocket.
The Sunday launch comes after two previous attempts were scrubbed. A data cord that was connected to the rocket’s second stage came loose just minutes before the rocket was set to lift off Wednesday but company officials said they were easily able to fix the problem. A second attempt Saturday was scrubbed because of wind.
“It certainly was an amazing achievement for Orbital today, a great day for NASA and another historical day for commercial spaceflight in America. The flight today was just beautiful and it looks like the preliminary data says that all the objectives we established for the flight today were 100 percent met,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program.
The company from the Washington suburb of Dulles was one of two, along with California-based competitor SpaceX, chosen to supply the space station after NASA ended its three-decade-old shuttle program in 2011. The space agency turned to private companies for the job, saying it would focus on getting manned flights to asteroids and to Mars.
SpaceX was awarded a $1.6 billion contract by NASA in 2006 to make a dozen missions to restock the space station. Orbital got into the mix in 2008 when it was awarded a $1.9 billion contract for eight deliveries.
“We’ve been playing catch-up, but we’re about caught up,” Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, said Tuesday. “By the end of next year we should have an additional four or five cargo missions under our belt, so we’re going to be moving fast.”
SpaceX has connected with the space station three times.
This summer, Orbital plans to launch a rocket carrying its Cygnus cargo ship to see whether it can safely dock with the space station.
During the scheduled demonstration flight, the cargo ship would carry about 1,600 pounds of supplies that include food, clothing and spare parts.
Those supplies aren’t part of the company’s contract. But the company agreed to ferry supplies since it was already going there, much like SpaceX did on its first demonstration flight in May 2012, when it dropped off 1,000 pounds of food, clothes, batteries and other provisions.
Orbital is under contract to deliver about 44,000 pounds of supplies to the space station and plans to make about two deliveries per year. Its cargo ship will carry about 4,400 pounds worth of supplies on each of its first three missions and 5,600 pounds on its last five.
Unlike the SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, the Orbital cargo ship is not designed to return with experiments or other items from the space station. Instead, plans call for filling the Cygnus ship with garbage that would be incinerated with the vessel upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. That’s also what Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships do.