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Launch is a milestone for Wallops, Orbital

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Print this page by Robert Burke

It took a few tries — three to be exact — but Dulles-based Orbital Sciences successfully launched its 133-foot Antares rocket into orbit in mid-April from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

It was the biggest rocket ever to lift off from Wallops and the first test of the Antares, developed as part of a $1.9 billion contract the company has for resupply missions at the International Space Station.

Two launch attempts were delayed, by a minor mechanical failure and then by high winds, but the successful launch at 5 p.m. on April 21 was visible for hundreds of miles along the Atlantic Coast. The launch was quite a show — the main-stage liquid-fuel engines appeared to have barely enough thrust to lift the rocket, which took 20 seconds to reach just 100 mph.

Eight minutes after launch the Antares and its mock cargo container reached orbit, bringing cheers and applause from the Orbital launch team. The container was then released and was expected to orbit for about two weeks before burning up in re-entry.
Next for Orbital is a demonstration mission carrying cargo to the space station, for June or July, followed by its first supply mission in September. After that, Orbital expects to send resupply missions to the space station every three to six months. Its contract with NASA calls for at least eight missions.

Orbital Chairman and CEO David Thompson called the launch “a giant step forward for the Antares program,” with good reason. A second company, California-based SpaceX, also has a space station resupply contract with NASA, and it already has done two launches. So there is a space race under way.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was at Wallops for the Antares launch and later called the Orbital mission “a culmination of the innovation that NASA has helped seed for the past several years … This is all part of our overall strategy: let industry develop the capabilities to pursue low Earth orbit, something we have been doing for 50 years, while NASA focuses on the farther destinations like an asteroid or Mars.” 

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