A commercially built rocket carrying a spacecraft packed with cargo is set to be launched off the coast of Virginia in a NASA test flight to the International Space Station.
The Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule, developed by Orbital Sciences Corp., is set to blast off Wednesday at 7:50 a.m. Pacific time from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
It will be the Dulles, Va., company’s first trip to the space station and a demonstration flight for NASA, so it can begin on a $1.9-billion contract for eight flights to transport cargo to the space station in coming years.
“Our engineering and operations teams are very excited to be on the threshold of launching and conducting this mission, which they have been working toward for the last five years,” said Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson.
It will be webcast on NASA TV beginning at 7:15 a.m. (Pacific).
The test is another crucial step in NASA's plan to privatize space missions. Now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired, NASA is eager to give private industry the job of carrying cargo and crews, in hopes of cutting costs.
Meanwhile, the space agency will focus on deep-space missions to land probes on asteroids and Mars.
If successful, Orbital will be the second commercial company to ever dock at the station.
The other company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has resupplied the space station in two missions. The Hawthorne firm, better known as SpaceX, most recently pulled off the feat in March.
Orbital first launched its Antares rocket with a successful test mission in April. The next test is to demonstrate Cygnus’ cargo transportation system to reliably deliver cargo to the space station. It could lead to regularly scheduled missions beginning as early as December.
During the upcoming mission, Cygnus will be carrying about 1,600 pounds of food, clothing and cargo for the crew aboard the space station.
Cygnus will carry out a series of tests and maneuvers over a four-day period to demonstrate its readiness to dock with the station. Rendezvous is now planned for Sunday. It will also be webcast on NASA TV.