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NASA's other rocket for hire, Antares, is poised for test launch

The Antares rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., is set for a first test launch Wednesday evening, weather permitting. Its maker is, like SpaceX, under contract with NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2013

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket is seen on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad-0A at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Tuesday.

Courtesy of Bill Ingalls/NASA/Reuters

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Orbital Sciences Corp., one of two companies NASA has hired to ferry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), is set for the first test launch of a new rocket it has built to handle the task.

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Liftoff of the rocket, dubbed Antares, currently is scheduled for early Wednesday evening EDT from a new launch pad built at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility on the Virginia coast.

"It's going to be the biggest and loudest and brightest thing that's ever been launched from Wallops," says Frank Culbertson, a former NASA astronaut and the executive vice president who oversees Orbital Sciences' advanced-programs group. The facility typically launches sounding rockets, research balloons, and conducts aviation research. It hasn't been the site of an orbital mission since 1985.

This mission's goal is to place a dummy version of the company's Cygnus cargo carrier into orbit. If it succeeds, the company aims to launch a loaded cargo module to the station this summer in a demonstration of its ability to meet NASA's standard for operating at the space station. If all goes well on that mission, the company plans the first formal delivery of cargo in the fall, under a $1.9-billion contract with the space agency.

For Orbital Sciences, Wednesday's launch represents a vital milestone along its path from late entry into NASA under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to launch pad.

"My confidence level is very high," Mr. Culbertson said during a prelaunch briefing Tuesday. The company has been working on the rocket for six years. It's the latest in a line of launch vehicles the company has built in the more than 30 years it has been building rockets, satellites, and other space hardware for civilian and military use.

For NASA, Antares and the new launch facility built to service it represent "a critical capability not only for NASA and the ISS program, but for the entire nation," offers Phil McAlister, the agency's director of commercial spaceflight development.

"We saw after Columbia how tenuous our lifeline is to low-Earth orbit," he adds, referring to the Columbia disaster in February 2002, when the shuttle disintegrated on reentry, killing its seven-member crew. "That one tragic accident made it really challenging for NASA to maintain the ISS during that very difficult period of time."

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