Commercial space flight got a shot in the arm just two days ago thanks to the flawless launch of the privately developed Antares rocket from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. On board was the first of many Cygnus craft, a commercial unmanned cargo resupply vehicle that is now making its way to the ISS in orbit. It was a day of firsts, and signaled the beginning of a new space race.
For starters, it was the first time the launchpad in Virginia was used, not to mention the maiden flight of a Cygnus craft. But perhaps most importantly, it was the first time in a long time that supplies and equipment were bound for the International Space Station from American soil. Since its cancellation in 2011, NASA’s space program has been forced to rely on the Russians and an aging fleet of Soyuz rockets to send astronauts and supplies into orbit.
And, as already noted, it was a big day for commercial space flight, since both the Antares and the Cygnus were produced by the Orbital Sciences Corporation. For some time now, SpaceX has been leading the charge to develop rockets and spacecraft for private commercial use. Now, with NASA awarding OSC contracts to restore America’s ability to mount resupply missions, it seems they might have some competition.
The “picture perfect” blastoff took place at 10:58 a.m. EDT on the morning of Sept. 18 from Virginia and was witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. The launch was reported as being incredibly beautiful as the rockets two stage engines spewed intensely bright flames and send out reverberations that wowed the people watching and woke people who were still asleep in the nearby community of Chincoteague.
Another historic first that bears mentioning is the fact that this latest mission happens to be the heaviest cargo load ever delivered to the ISS by a commercial vehicle. And by awarding contracts for such missions to private companies, NASA hopes to be able to free more of its budget up for long-term missions. These include exploration beyond low earth orbit, getting people back to the Moon and beyond to deep space destinations including Asteroids and Mars.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke glowingly of the launch in a statement and praised OSC for their role in making it happen:
Today marks a milestone in our new era of exploration as we expand the capability for making cargo launches to the International Space Station from American shores. Orbital’s extraordinary efforts are helping us fulfill the promise of American innovation to maintain our nation’s leadership in space.
According to ongoing mission updates, the Cygnus spacecraft successfully unfurled its solar panels starting 1.5 minutes after separation from the second stage, which took place about 10 minutes after launch. Currently, Cygnus is traveling at 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph) and will rendezvous with the space station on Sunday, Sept. 22.
Once there, the cargo vessel will deliver about 590 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew. The flight, known as Orb-D1 is a demonstration mission to prove that Cygnus can conduct a complex series of maneuvers in space safely bringing it to the vicinity of the ISS.
And once the mission is complete and the supplies delivered, we can expect to be hearing about more missions like this one! Between SpaceX’s Dragon module, the Cygnus, and both companies ongoing rocket tests, space will is likely to become the new frontier where private enterprises carry out their endless dance of competition.
And of course, there are some cool videos of the launch to behold. So behold!
Time-lapse video of Antares deployment: