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Orbital Sciences prepares rocket for closely watched NASA mission

The firm's two-stage Antares rocket is set for blastoff Wednesday into space on a test mission, the first step toward a $1.9-billion contract.

April 16, 2013|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket is on the launchpad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket is set to carry a dummy cargo capsule weighing about 8,300 pounds to about 160 miles above Earth.
Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket is on the launchpad at NASA's… (NASA )

On a little-known launch pad off the coast of Virginia, a team of about 200 engineers and technicians is readying a 13-story rocket for its maiden flight to space in a test mission for NASA.

The Antares rocket, developed by Orbital Sciences Corp., is going through final preparations for a 2 p.m. Pacific time blastoff planned for Wednesday. The eyes of the U.S. government will be on the launch to see whether the two-engine booster has the right stuff.

NASA has invested about $288 million in seed money to help the Dulles, Va., company develop its technology, and has an additional $1.9 billion on the table with a contract for eight flights to transport cargo to the International Space Station in the coming years.

"This test launch is an important milestone to validate the work the team has done over the past 41/2 years," Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said. "From a business perspective, our involvement with NASA's new initiative of engaging the commercial sector to carry out the more routine low-orbit operations is an important part of our growth story and may lead to other market opportunities."

Now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired, NASA is eager to give private industry the job of carrying cargo and crews, in hopes of cutting costs. Meanwhile, the space agency will focus on deep-space missions to land probes on asteroids and Mars.

One commercial company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has successfully resupplied the space station in two missions. The Hawthorne firm, better known as SpaceX, most recently pulled off the feat last month.

The Antares test flight, more than a year late because of design and launchpad delays, is the first of two missions Orbital is scheduled to conduct in 2013 under its contract with NASA.

The two-stage rocket, powered by engines from Aerojet-General Corp. in Sacramento, is set to carry a dummy cargo capsule weighing roughly 8,300 pounds about 160 miles above Earth. NASA Television coverage of the launch will begin at 1 p.m. at www.nasa.gov/ntv.

There is a 45% chance of favorable weather. If needed, backup launch opportunities are available April 18-21.

The capsule will carry instruments to collect data and will remain in orbit for months until natural gravitational forces slowly degrade its orbit and it reenters and burns up in the atmosphere.

If all goes well, Orbital plans to carry out a full flight demonstration midyear of the rocket and the Cygnus capsule that will take cargo to the space station.

But success is far from guaranteed.

The rocket industry is notoriously difficult to enter and littered with failed projects. Even the best rocket systems often require several attempts before they achieve success.

"Getting the engineering right is the next step," said Carissa Bryce Christensen, managing partner of Tauri Group, an analytic and engineering firm in Alexandria, Va. "If it's successful or not, there will be a lot learned. However, they're more likely to get more attention if they fail than if they succeed."

Although Orbital acknowledges the hazards of launching a new rocket, the company remains confident about its rocket. The company has had successful missions with its last four new rockets: Pagasus, Taurus, Minotaur I and Minotaur IV. Each of those rockets performed as expected on their first five missions.

But in 2009 and 2011, Orbital ran into failures with its Taurus XL rocket. On both occasions, the rocket's protective fairing did not separate properly from the rocket and didn't allow the satellites it was carrying to reach orbit.

The failures shook the company and caused it to name its newest rocket "Antares" — rather than its original name, Taurus II, to prevent the public from thinking they were the same.

So when the Antares blasts off, it will be the first new rocket to be launched from a freshly built Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia.

Although the center was established in 1945, the facility hasn't hosted high-profile launches like those at more notable launch pads in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Santa Barbara.

At 6 square miles, Wallops' mission is to act as a resource for low-cost aerospace-based science and technology research. It's a site for launching sounding rockets, weather balloons and scientific aircraft, rather than spy satellites and manned missions.

But the state of Virginia poured $80 million — in addition to $40 billion from NASA — into developing Wallops so it could be a hub for commercial companies to routinely launch rockets. Although Orbital is its only current customer, the government is in talks with other companies.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton said the state hopes to eventually see one launch a month from the complex.

The first test is with the Antares rocket that's now upright at Wallops after spending the last several weeks undergoing assembly and fuel testing.

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