The successful launch shortly before sunset was cheered as a sign that the company had rebounded from its failure last year. And it came as a huge relief for NASA and the space industry.
“We have officially resumed cargo resupply to the International Space Station,” said Mike Currie, A NASA spokesman. “It’s a great day.”
After the explosion in October 2014, Dulles-based Orbital, then known as Orbital Sciences, decided to upgrade its Antares rocket, outfitting it with a new engine. That rocket won’t be ready until next year, the company said, so it contracted with the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to use its Atlas V for Sunday’s launch.
“We had a perfect orbit injection, really right on the money,” said Frank DeMauro, Orbital’s vice president of human space systems. “We’re looking forward to getting on the ISS.”
After the shuttle retired in 2011, NASA decided to contract out the missions to the space station, located in what’s called low Earth orbit, or about 220 miles from Earth. Two companies, Orbital and SpaceX, won the contracts to fly supplies there.
Eight months after Orbital’s explosion, SpaceX also saw its rocket explode. The twin failures, both ending in spectacular fireballs that caused millions of dollars of losses, made some question NASA’s decision to contract out such important and difficult missions to the private sector.
But Sunday’s flight had all the satisfying trademarks of a successful launch — a powerful engine roar, a gradual lift off the launch pad, then the thunderous, graceful arc through the sky — and was hailed as a key step in restoring confidence in NASA’s plan.
Currie called it a “picture perfect ascent.”
Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft is expected to reach the orbiting station, traveling at 17,500 mph some 250 miles high, on Wednesday morning. U.S. astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren would use the station’s robotic arm to grab the Cygnus and berth it.
“This is about as good as it gets,” said Vern Thorpe, ULA’s program manager for NASA missions. “I know the crew up on the ISS is really looking forward to getting this load of cargo.”
SpaceX has also been working to upgrade its Falcon 9 rocket, which last flew in June, when it blew up about two minutes into flight. The company has said its next mission would be to launch a commercial satellite for Orbcomm, a communications company. That launch is expected sometime later this month, but the companies have not yet announced the date.
The cargo the Cygnus spacecraft is carrying includes food and water for the astronauts, and supplies, including a new jet pack astronauts wear on space walks. Among the experiments is a system designed to test the flame retardant qualities of clothing that could help firefighters and soldiers.
“While the pantry shelves are fairly well stocked, this delivery will definitely help the crew with commodities as well as research experiments,” Currie said on NASA TV Sunday.
Cygnus would stay attached to the station for more than a month, when it will act as a giant space dumpster. Astronauts aboard the station will use it to dispose trash. Eventually it would detach, fly back toward Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.