Two years after a rocket blew up shortly after liftoff, creating a 30-foot deep-crater and $15 million in damage, Orbital ATK is set to return to flight Sunday night, launching a newly configured rocket from a refurbished launchpad on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The mission is to carry 5,100 pounds of research supplies and cargo — but no passengers -- to the International Space Station. But there is far more rising on the launch than that.
Orbital ATK is hoping to prove it can bounce back from the 2014 explosion, which happened when the company was known as Orbital Sciences. Since then, it has flown its Cygnus spacecraft to the station aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. But Sunday’s launch would be the maiden flight of its newly configured Antares rocket using new engines. And the company wants to show NASA — and others — that it can fly reliably.
NASA has a lot riding on it as well. The agency relies on the commercial sector to ferry supplies to the station — a move many said was risky given the complexities and dangers of spaceflight. But its other contractor, SpaceX, is grounded, while it investigates how one of its rockets blew up last month. SpaceX was also grounded last year after one of its Falcon 9 rockets blew up during a resupply mission.
All of which — the newly configured rocket, the past disasters, the pressure on the commercial sector to prove it can fly reliably — adds to the suspense of Sunday’s launch. With so much at stake, it’s clear that Orbital ATK and NASA have proceeded very cautiously. The launch has been delayed repeatedly, as the company worked to get it vehicle-tested and in order. More recently, the launch delayed because a hurricane threatened a tracking station in Bermuda.
But for now at least, the launch is scheduled for 8:03 p.m. Sunday. The rocket is on the launchpad, about 175 miles southeast of Washington. Here's the viewing area: