A privately-owned rocket built in partnership with NASA blasted off for a debut test flight yesterday.
The 13-story Antares rocket, developed and flown by Orbital Sciences Corp to haul cargo to the International Space Station, lifted off at 9pm last night from a new commercial spaceport.
Ten minutes after taking off from the Virginia-owned and operated launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, the rocket deposited its payload – a 3,800kg dummy capsule – into an orbit 158 miles above the planet, fulfilling the primary goal of the test flight.
"Beautiful view," said NASA launch commentator Kyle Herring as live video from the rocket, broadcast on NASA TV, showed the booster riding atop a bright plume of fire above the Atlantic Ocean.
Orbital Sciences and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, hold NASA contracts worth a combined $3.5bn to fly cargo to the space station, a $100bn research outpost that flies about 250 miles above Earth, after NASA turned to commercial suppliers when they retired the space shuttles in 2011.
Standing 130 feet (40 metres) tall and packing 740,000 pounds of thrust at lift-off, Antares was the largest rocket to fly from Wallops Island, which has been operating for 68 years as a launch site for smaller suborbital rockets, high-altitude balloons and research aircraft.
Flight controllers radioed news of Antares' successful debut to the station crew shortly after launch.
"Wahoo, that's super," replied station commander Chris Hadfield, with the Canadian Space Agency. "Congratulations to all concerned. That bodes well for all of our futures."
On its next flight, scheduled for late June or early July, another Antares rocket will carry a Cygnus cargo ship on a demonstration mission to the station.
The debut of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket was delayed by the construction of its launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located on the southern end of NASA's Wallops Island facility.
Two launch attempts last week were cancelled due to a last-minute technical problem followed by bad weather at the launch site.
"It's been a long slog," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after the launch. "It's absolutely incredible what this team has done."
NASA's share of developing the Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule will total about $288m upon successful completion of the second and final planned test flight.
Combined, NASA and Orbital Sciences spent about $300m to develop Cygnus and slightly more than that to develop the rocket, Orbital Sciences Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson told reporters after the launch.
"As a company it was a huge risk to invest in this," he said. "But I think it's going to demonstrate a commercial capability that will pay off in the long run."
"With the right people pulling together and with great teammates, we were able to achieve this. We're real happy," Culbertson added.
In addition to station cargo runs, Orbital Sciences has a separate contract to launch a NASA moon probe aboard a Minotaur 5 rocket from Wallops in August.