Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the location from which the Cygnus launcher would take off. This version has been corrected.
Dulles-based Orbital Sciences was founded 30 years ago with a goal of helping to commercialize the government-dominated world of space.
Late this year, the company will have an opportunity to show its own readiness for a much larger role as it makes its first resupply mission to the International Space Station.
“There’s no shortage of pressure,” said Frank L. Culbertson, deputy general manager of Orbital’s advanced programs group and a former astronaut himself.
With the end of NASA’s shuttle program and shrinking government budgets, NASA has refocused its attention on the capabilities of commercial companies. The agency awarded both Orbital and California-based SpaceX resupply contracts, marking a new opportunity for private space firms.
Orbital received a two-part deal. In the first stage, it has shared costs with NASA to develop the needed technology, and in the second, under a $1.9 billion contract, it will deliver 20 metric tons of supplies to the space station.
Now, the company is readying to launch space modules to the station that will deliver the material, take away the station’s trash and then burn up as they reenter the atmosphere.
On site at its Dulles complex are five units of the Cygnus — the space module that acts as the brains of the operation, using sensors and software to navigate itself to the space station. It will come within 10 meters of the station and then be brought in by the space station’s robotic arm, said Frank DeMauro, program director for the commercial resupply service program.
Attached to the Cygnus will be the cargo module, which is being built by Thales Alenia.
To get Cygnus and its cargo to space, Orbital has built the Antares, a rocket launcher that will take off from the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority facility on Wallops Island. Like the Cygnus, the Antares launcher is not reused; part of it drops into the ocean while another piece eventually burns up.
To prepare for eight missions, Orbital is building 10 Antares vehicles — two for test and demonstration missions — and 9 Cygnus modules — one will be used for the demonstration, but a simulated Cygnus will stand in during the test.
Orbital is expecting to run its first test at Wallops Island in late October, and the demonstration launch later this year. The first supply mission would happen early next year, and all eight are expected to be complete by early 2016.
Each mission is expected to take about a month; it takes about five days for the Cygnus to make it to the station, it will stay there for anywhere from two weeks to two months, and it will take another day or two for the spacecraft to disintegrate on reentry.
“The idea of now relying on private industry and let[ting] them lead the way has already been decided,” said Marco A. Caceres, director of space studies at the Teal Group. “The question is: Can industry do it without too many failures?”
He said Orbital’s success, along with that of SpaceX, which has already made it to the space station, would provide the needed competition and potentially open the door to more companies.
“There’s a lot at stake here because you’re really talking about the future of human spaceflight. It’s not going to be NASA that does it,” said Caceres. “It’s these companies ... that are supposedly going to be colonizing the moon and maybe even Mars.”