There’s now competition for regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.
Orbital Sciences launched its Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard its Antares rocket at 9:58 a.m. Wednesday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Cygnus is scheduled to rendezvous with the station Sunday on its demonstration mission to deliver 1,300 pounds of cargo, including food and clothing, to the space station’s Expedition 37 crew.
“This is just the beginning of what we can do to support human space flight,” Orbital’s Vice-President Frank Culbertson said.
While there is a series of demonstration maneuvers to be done, including docking with the space station, Orbital’s launch makes it the second viable United States company to enter the commercial space delivery market. Space X, using its Dragon spacecraft, became the first company last year.
NASA officials have said it is key to long-range plans for contracting with commercial space companies for regular deliveries to the space station. Eventually, NASA wants to be able to call on commercial space companies to transport crews into orbit.
SpaceX, Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation are competing to build spacecraft to transport crew members to the station.
If this demonstration flight is successful, it’s expected Orbital will be first in line to make its first official commercial delivery in December. NASA’s $1.9 billion contract with the company calls for eight cargo flights to the station.
SpaceX and Orbital will split resupply missions to the station, allowing NASA to focus on deeper-space exploration, said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the agency’s commercial crew and cargo program.
The three Expedition 37 crew members — Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineers Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano — gathered around a laptop computer screen in the station’s Destiny laboratory to watch a live video stream of the launch of Cygnus. Nyberg then sent her congratulations to Orbital Sciences via Twitter.
“Congrats @OrbitalSciences - great launch,” Nyberg wrote in her tweet. “Excited for Cygnus arrival on Sunday.”
After the unmanned craft docks with the space station, it will spend about 30 days on orbit as the space station crew empties its cargo. The vehicle will then be detached from the station and sent to be destroyed in the Earth’s atmosphere.