The sound rolled louder than thunder as the Antares rocket rose majestically from Virginia’s Launch Complex 0A on Wallops Island at 10:58 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 18. The Virginia-owned Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport launch facility was being used by Orbital Sciences to launch an Antares cargo launch vehicle to the International Space Station less than two weeks after the same facility launched a rocket to the moon.
The Antares launch vehicle carried a Cygnus spacecraft that was loaded with nearly 1,500 pounds of supplies for the Space Station. The spacecraft will first perform a number of maneuvers to demonstrate that it can approach the Space Station safely. Once that is accomplished, the spacecraft will fly in formation with the Space Station, which will then haul it to a docking port using a robotic arm.
However, the rendezvous between the Cygnus spacecraft and the International Space Station has been postponed to no earlier than Saturday, Sept. 28. A NASA announcement said that a data communications problem created an initial delay of two days, but with the impending arrival of the next Soyuz spacecraft and a crew change the schedule became too tight.
As a result, NASA and Orbital Sciences agreed to wait until the Soyuz operations were completed before scheduling the docking of Cygnus with the space station.
The successful launch from Wallops Island marked almost exactly 50 years from the date of the first launch of a spacecraft into orbit from the facility. It was also the heaviest payload for a resupply mission, according to NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who was present for the launch.
The launch went off, in Lightfoot’s words, “optimally.” While there were some minor glitches, such as a balky video camera and a power cable that needed replacement over the previous weekend, the actual launch was essentially perfect. According to Orbital Sciences Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson, the launch was as close to perfect as it was possible to get. “It did end up a couple of kilometers higher than we’d planned,” he said at the post-launch press conference. “But that’s not a problem,” he said.
Antares is a traditional liquid fueled rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. It boosts a solid-fuel powered second stage that inserts the Cygnus spacecraft into orbit. The Antares/Cygnus mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) in which private companies provide launch services to the Space Station. The only other company launching COTS payloads is California-based Space-X, which successfully launched a Dragon spacecraft to the Space Station in 2012.
Prior to the successful launch of these privately developed space vehicles, NASA had to rely entirely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to resupply the Space Station after NASA retired the last of the venerable Space Shuttles in July 2011.
The Sept. 18 launch is the first in what are currently planned to be 10 launches by Orbital Sciences. The next Space Station resupply launch is planned for December. Wallops Island is expecting to see at least one commercial launch every month for the foreseeable future.