Orbital ATK returned to flight Monday evening by christening a refurbished Virginia launchpad with a smooth rocket liftoff two years after an explosion caused $15 million in damage.
Flying an updated Antares rocket with new engines, the company sent its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft into orbit at 7:45 p.m., chasing down the International Space Station on a cargo resupply mission for NASA. The spacecraft is scheduled to reach the station Sunday to deliver 5,100 pounds of cargo and supplies to the astronauts there.
The highly anticipated launch, visible across much of the Mid-Atlantic, was full of drama and tension for Dulles-based Orbital ATK, which lost another unmanned Antares in a massive fireball two years ago. The problem then was with the rocket’s engines — prompting the switch to the Russian-made RD-181.
At the time, the setback touched off a wave of concern about the company and NASA, which relies on the commercial sector to fly cargo to the station. The space agency’s other supplier, SpaceX, which also has a contract to eventually fly astronauts to the station, is grounded while investigators try to determine why its rocket exploded last month, the second mishap involving one of its missions. In both incidents, the rockets did not have passengers and no one was hurt. And in both cases, investigators suspect the problems are linked to the Falcon 9’s second stage.
But on Monday evening, after months of delays, Orbital ATK and NASA officials said they were thrilled with a triumphant return. The company had flown cargo missions for NASA in its Cygnus spacecraft but did so by relying on a different rocket, an Atlas V, from the United Launch Alliance for the boost into space. This was the first launch aboard the newly configured Antares rocket.
“All vehicles appear healthy,” mission control officials said a few minutes after liftoff.
The launch was also the first at the newly refurbished launch site at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore about 175 miles southeast of Washington. The explosion there two years ago left a huge crater that took months to repair. The rocket exploded a few seconds into flight, fell back to Earth and exploded like a bomb, leaving a mushroom cloud rising into the evening sky.
Monday’s launch appeared to go flawlessly, and many people across the Mid-Atlantic took to social media to express their excitement about seeing the flight from their decks and yards.
An exuberant Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) tweeted his emoji-filled congratulations to NASA and Orbital ATK: “Woohoo!”
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 18, 2016
Before the launch, Amanda Davis, of Orbital ATK, said that preparation had been going smoothly: “Everyone is feeling really good about today.” The Antares's new engines are designed to give the rocket more reliability and performance, she said. Swapping out rocket engines is no small feat. But they “checked out great” during testing, she said. The company has also upgraded its Cygnus spacecraft to be able to carry more cargo to the station.
If all goes according to plan, astronauts aboard the station will grab it with a robotic arm and attach it to the station on Sunday.