Orbital’s Antares rocket cleared for maiden launch to orbit

Orbital's Antares rocket cleared for its maiden launch into orbit

The biggest private rocket ever to launch from Virginia’s Eastern Shore is ready to take its maiden voyage on Wednesday, the rocket’s builders say.

NASA and the commercial spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corp. have officially cleared the company’s new Antares rocket for launch, setting the stage for what will be a critical test flight from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility here. Liftoff is set for Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT).

“It’s going to be the biggest, brightest and loudest thing ever launched from Wallops,” Orbital CEO Frank Culbertson, a former NASA astronaut, told reporters Tuesday. “It’s going to be visible up and down the East Coast.” …

You can watch the Antares rocket launch webcast on, courtesy of NASA.

The Antares rocket is a two-stage booster that stands 131 feet (40 meters) tall and is designed to launch Orbital’s robotic Cygnus spacecraft on cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station. The Dulles-based Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to provide at least eight cargo missions to the station. NASA picked Orbital Sciences as a commercial cargo provider in 2008.

With NASA’s space shuttle fleet retired, the space agency is relying on commercial rockets and spacecraft to serve as the vital supply line for the space station. Another company, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., has a $1.6 billion contract for 12 cargo missions under a similar deal.

SpaceX launches its rockets from Florida, which has a long tradition of space launches, and has already flown two delivery flights and one test mission under that program.

“This does represent a new way of doing business for NASA,” NASA’s commercial crew program manager Alan Lindenmoyer said. “We’re sharing the cost.”

Orbital officials said the company began developing the Antares rocket on its own, and later received up to $288 million in NASA support to help develop the Cygnus craft. So far, Orbital has completed 24 of the 29 milestones required to receive that $288 million. The company also added in “several hundred million” of its own funds for Cygnus, Culbertson said.

Orbital is hoping that investment pays off not only in NASA contracts for station cargo missions, but also in deals with commercial customers who want to use Antares and Cygnus. But first, the Antares rocket must prove its spaceworthiness, and that’s where Wednesday’s test flight comes in.

Orbital’s Antares rocket uses two Aerojet AJ26 liquid-fueled engines, modernized versions of a design originally developed to launch Russia’s N-1 moon rocket in the 1960s, to power its first stage. The second stage is powered by a new solid rocket motor built by veteran solid-fueled motor builder ATK, which also built the boosters for NASA’s space shuttles.

Exciting times. SpaceX could become a big name one day, I predict.

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Antares launch is scrubbed due to a premature separation of an umbilical for rocket stage. 🙁

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