An ATK-assisted commercial cargo ship made its successful debut Wednesday, rocketing toward the International Space Station and doubling the number of NASA's private suppliers for the high-flying lab.
Orbital Sciences Corp. launched its first-ever supply ship from Virginia's Eastern Shore, the departing point for a NASA moonshot less than two weeks ago.
"Look out ISS, here we come," the company said in a tweet.
The capsule named Cygnus -- bearing 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and goodies for the astronauts -- is due at the orbiting outpost on Sunday, following four days of testing.
ATK's CASTOR 30 upper stage solid rocket motor supported the successful cargo demonstration launch of Orbital Sciences' unmanned Antares rocket as it lifted off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
This demonstration flight to the space station is the final milestone in Orbital's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services joint development effort with NASA before Orbital begins regular cargo resupply missions to the orbiting laboratory through NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract.
"This launch prepares the way for Orbital to begin supplying the ISS on regularly scheduled flights and we congratulate our customer on another success," said Scott Lehr, vice president and general manager of ATK's Defense and Commercial division. "We are excited to be a part of Orbital's Antares team as they undertake future missions for the NASA CRS program."
The Virginia-based Orbital Sciences is only the second business to attempt a shipment like this. The California-based SpaceX company has been delivering station supplies for more than a year under a NASA contract.
"If you needed more tangible proof that this is a new era of exploration, it's right here, right now in Virginia," NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot said at a post-launch news conference.
ATK's commercial CASTOR 30 motor was developed in response to a market need for a large-diameter upper stage motor, low-cost option. It has the flexibility to serve markets as diverse as space launch, prompt global strike and operationally responsive space. In support of Wednesday's launch, the motor fired for approximately 153 seconds and produced 73,000 pounds of maximum thrust to loft the Cygnus spacecraft carrying 1,611 pounds of cargo into the proper orbit. This is the last of the baseline CASTOR 30 motors, as all future flights will utilize the enhanced CASTOR 30 or CASTOR 30XL motors, increasing payload capability for the vehicle.
Orbital developed Antares and the Cygnus cargo spacecraft under NASA's COTS program. NASA initiatives like COTS are helping develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry, with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit.
ATK is an aerospace, defense, and commercial products company with operations in Utah and 20 other states, Puerto Rico, and internationally.
The three space station residents, circling 260 miles high, watched the launch via a live link provided by Mission Control in Houston.
"Great launch! Excited for Cygnus arrival on Sunday!" space station astronaut Karen Nyberg said in a tweet. She's expecting a fresh stash of chocolate.
Nyberg and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano will use the space station's robot arm to grab Cygnus from orbit and attach it to the space station. Also on board is a Russian.
The crew will double in size next week when another American and two Russians lift off aboard a Russian rocket from Kazakhstan.
NASA is paying Orbital Sciences and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, to keep the space station stocked after the retirement of the shuttles. The other countries involved in the station also make deliveries.
The bigger SpaceX Dragon capsule, which is launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., has the advantage of returning items to Earth. It parachutes into the Pacific off the Southern California coast.
The Cygnus will be filled with station trash and cut loose for a fiery destruction upon re-entry, following a monthlong visit. That's how the Russian, European and Japanese supply ships wind up, too -- as incinerators.
"We categorize it as disposable cargo," said Orbital Sciences' executive vice president, Frank Culbertson. "Others may call it trash."
If all goes well, Orbital Sciences hopes to launch another Cygnus in December with about 2,800 pounds of supplies. That will be the first true operational mission under a $1.9 billion contract.
The SpaceX contract is worth $1.6 billion.
SpaceX is working to modify its Dragon capsule for space station crews, so NASA doesn't have to keep paying tens of millions of dollars to the Russians per ticket. Orbital Sciences envisions strictly non-human payloads for the Cygnus -- but not necessarily just in Earth's backyard.
"We'd be happy to help a mission go to Mars," said Culbertson, a former astronaut who lived on the space station in 2001.
The capsule was named in honor of G. David Low, a former astronaut and Orbital Sciences executive who died in 2008. He flew on three shuttle missions but not to the space station. This was a way for Low to get there after all these years, Culbertson said after the launch.