| CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Sept 16
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Sept 16 NASA on Monday
cleared a second commercial company to launch a cargo ship to
the International Space Station, with blastoff slated this week
from a Virginia spaceport.
If successful, Orbital Sciences Corp. would join
privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, also known as
SpaceX, in flying supplies to the space station, a $100 billion
research complex that orbits about 250 miles (about 400 km)
Orbital Sciences' two-stage Antares rocket, which made a
successful debut flight in April, is scheduled to lift off at
10:50 a.m. EDT (1450 GMT) on Wednesday from the Virginia-owned
Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which operates under a lease
agreement with NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
The 133-foot (40.5 meter) tall rocket will be carrying the
company's first Cygnus cargo capsule.
Like SpaceX's Dragon capsules, which so far have made three
flights to the space station, Cygnus is intended to restore a
U.S. supply line to the station following the retirement of
NASA's space shuttles in 2011.
"We have them lined up to use them fairly regularly," NASA's
space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters
during a prelaunch press conference.
"This is what we said was going to be the fleet to take care
of the U.S. segment (of the space station) and we need to have
it," Suffredini said.
Russia, Europe and Japan also fly freighters to the station,
a partnership of 15 nations.
Unlike traditional government contracts, NASA provided $684
million in seed funds as well as technical support to SpaceX and
Orbital Sciences to develop their rockets, capsules and launch
The firms also hold a combined $3.5 billion in contracts to
fly cargo to the station for NASA.
SpaceX, which was awarded its development contract in 2006,
is preparing to debut an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 rocket
later this month.
NASA wants SpaceX to have two or three missions under its
belt with the new rocket before resuming supply runs to the
station, Suffredini said.
Orbital Sciences, which began its partnership with NASA 18
months later, stands to collect a final $2.5 million development
payment from NASA upon completion of its demonstration flight to
If the launch occurs as planned on Wednesday, astronauts
aboard the station on Sunday plan to use a robotic crane to
pluck the Cygnus capsule from orbit and attach it to a docking
Unlike Dragon capsules, Cygnus spacecraft are designed to
burn up in the atmosphere after they are loaded with trash and
depart the station.
For its orbital debut, Cygnus will be carrying a half-load
of about 1,543 pounds (700 kg) of food and other cargo
considered "non-essential" by NASA in case the rocket or
spacecraft encounters problems and cannot reach the station.
"For a demo flight, we don't typically fill them up,"
Cygnus is expected to remain docked at the station for about
a month. Should the mission be successful, Orbital Sciences
plans to return to that station in December for the first flight
under a $1.9 billion cargo resupply contract with NASA.
For now, NASA is the only customer for Cygnus, but Orbital
Sciences expects new business as the United States and other
countries launch exploration initiatives beyond the space
"We think Cygnus has the capability to do a lot more than
just deliver cargo to the station," said Frank Culbertson, a
former astronaut who now serves as Orbital Science's executive
Thales Alenia Space, a consortium led by Europe's largest
defense electronics company, France's Thales, is a
prime contractor on the capsule.