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Test flight of Antares rocket set for Wednesday evening

Posted: April 16, 2013

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. -- Orbital Sciences Corp. plans to launch its first Antares rocket Wednesday, moving the company a step closer to supplying the International Space Station with cargo and making history at an enduring launch base on Virginia's coast.

The Antares rocket on the launch pad at Wallops Island, Va. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
The 13-story rocket will take off in a three-hour window opening at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), rising from a new seaside launch pad on a 10-minute flight into Earth orbit.

It will be the first launch in a public-private partnership between NASA and Orbital Sciences, in which NASA is investing $288 million to help the Virginia-based company develop the Antares launcher and a resupply craft named Cygnus to service the space station.

Powered by two Russian-built, U.S.-owned engines manufactured more than 40 years ago, the Antares first stage will propel the rocket to more than 9,800 mph in less than four minutes. A solid-fueled second stage will fire a few minutes later to accelerate the launcher into orbit more than 150 miles above Earth.

"We will lift off with approximately 750,000 pounds of thrust and weighing about 600,000 pounds," said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's advanced programs group. "It will not race off the pad, but it will accelerate very quickly once it gets going."

The test launch is supposed to wring out any design problems with the Antares rocket, collecting extensive data with a suite of 72 accelerometers, microphones, thermometers, thermocouples and strain gauges mounted on a block of aluminum designed to mimic the mass of a Cygnus payload.

The sensors will measure data as the Antares booster rockets through the speed of sound and arcs southeast from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The data recorders will monitor the conditions encountered as the rocket jettisons its liquid-fueled first stage and ignites an upper stage motor several minutes after liftoff.

The 8,377-pound mass simulator, which contains no propulsion or power systems, will be released from the Antares rocket's solid-fueled second stage about 10 minutes after liftoff, verifying the launcher's payload separation system functions as envisioned.

Officials view the test flight as a learning exercise.

"That first word is test, so if things don't go exactly as planned, we will learn what we need to learn," Culbertson said. "And we will press on and continue to improve as we go forward."

Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA relies on two commercial partners - Orbital Sciences and SpaceX - to loft experiments, food, spare parts and other gear to the international space lab.

The Antares rocket on the launch pad at Wallops Island, Va. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
The space agency selected two companies for cargo services to have a backup in case one system runs into trouble. NASA's space station partners, including Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency, each operate their own cargo vehicles.

"We don't have the shuttle anymore," said Culbertson, a former astronaut who commanded space shuttle and space station missions. "The shuttle, with all its cargo capability and lift capability, was able to keep the space station very well-supplied with things of any size, from the largest battery requirement to the smallest instrument. But without the shuttle, we need other means of doing that, and it's going to be a multi-faceted solution."

Financing the development with internal funds, Orbital Sciences started working on the Antares rocket in April 2007, according to Kurt Eberly, deputy Antares project director.

"It's very gratifying to me to see this capability. When we started this program six years ago, none of this existed. There was no building, there was no pad, and there was certainly no rocket," said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, in remarks at the Antares launch pad.

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, an economic development agency run by the government of Virginia, paid for construction of the launch pad, which is run by Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a partnership between Virginia and Maryland.

NASA joined the project in February 2008, pledging $170 million to Orbital Sciences if the firm completed development milestones leading to a successful demonstration of the Antares and Cygnus vehicles on a flight to the space station. Orbital's own private investment in the program totaled "a couple of hundred million dollars," according to Culbertson, who declined to disclose the exact value.

Using additional money appropriated by Congress, NASA later expanded its Space Act Agreement with Orbital, promising another $118 million if the Dulles, Va.-based company added a test launch of the Antares rocket before the flight to the space station.

Under the agreement, NASA pays Orbital upon completion of milestones. A successful Antares test launch will trigger a $4 million payment from NASA to Orbital.

But Orbital Sciences has an eye on the long-term prize, a $1.9 billion contract the company secured in late 2008 for eight operational resupply missions to the space station.

"It's not a few million [dollars] we have riding on this," Culbertson said. "It's $1.9 billion and the company's reputation."

Artist's concept of a Cygnus spacecraft approaching the International Space Station. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
If successful, the test flight Wednesday will give Orbital Sciences the confidence to proceed into the next phase of its cargo resupply program - a demonstration mission to the space station this summer.

Equipped with a voluminous cargo container, the Cygnus spacecraft due to launch on the summer mission is already assembled at Wallops, and engineers are fueling the vehicle with propellant this week, Culbertson said.

Orbital's first operational launch of Antares and Cygnus could come before the end of 2013, assuming the test missions go well without significant delays.

"I am very much looking forward to the day when the Antares/Cygnus system is making regular cargo resupply runs to the International Space Station, so that we can make sure that international lab is well-supplied," McAlister said.

Each flight will deliver more than two tons of supplies. At the end of the mission, the Cygnus spacecraft will burn up in Earth's atmosphere, disposing of the space station's garbage in a method similar to the one employed by Russian, Japanese and European spaceships.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which has accomplished two of its 12 contracted resupply flights, is the only vehicle capable of returning experiment samples and other gear to Earth.

NASA's contracts with Orbital and SpaceX cover flights until about 2016, so the space agency must negotiate new deals for resupply services through the rest of the space station's expected lifetime, which extends until at least 2020.

McAlister said NASA has not defined how it will procure cargo services for the second half of the decade - whether the government will extend the existing contracts or go through a complete round of competition open to new entrants.