Orbital Rolls Out Antares Rocket
Wednesday, November 14th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
After several months of facility construction delays, Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket is finally on the launch pad and being prepped for its first major test.
A hot-fire test of the engines is on track for sometime this month, with the hope of a test flight — complete with a simulated version of Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft — to launch in December.
At least, that’s the plan for now. A year and a half ago, Orbital officials were talking about getting a demonstration flight of the much-anticipated unmanned cargo resupply ship up to the International Space Station in late 2011.
Now, as investors learned in a conference call with Orbital officials on Oct. 18, that flight has been pushed to next March or April. The next day, Orbital’s stock market price slid four percent, it’s biggest decline since June 1, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
The space biz seems glamorous, but sometimes it’s just plain difficult.
NASA awarded Orbital and SpaceX contracts in 2008 to produce vehicles that could take over a lot of the heavy lifting in resupplying the Space Station after the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle program.
Orbital won a $1.9 billion contract to provide eight flights, while SpaceX signed a contract for $1.6 billion to make 12 supply runs up to ISS.
As it developed its rocket and cargo vessel, the Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital also partnered with Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which sits next to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility, near Virginia’s Eastern Shore border with Maryland.
The company promised to launch its missions from the MARS facility, bringing jobs — and hopefully, one day, space-brained tourists — to the area, while Virginia promised to help pay for major launch pad renovations and the construction of a horizontal integration facility where Orbital could put its rocket together.
Delays in the renovations and the need for Virginia to kick in more money led to the push back on Orbital’s launch date. But renovations are essentially completed now, and Orbital rolled its Antares rocket out to the launch pad on Oct. 1.
After a few weeks of testing various mechanical and electrical systems, including loading and unloading propellant, the hot-fire test of the rocket engines will take place. If that’s successful, about a month later, Orbital officials hope the Antares will go on its maiden flight.
That flight, which will include a heavily instrumented payload to simulate the Cygnus spacecraft, will collect much-needed data on what happens aboard the vehicle during the flight.
And then, if all goes well, a demonstration trip to the International Space Station will take place sometime next spring.
Meanwhile, SpaceX officially made its first official cargo delivery to ISS during the second week of October, a mere four months after its much-ballyhooed demonstration flight to the Space Station in May.
Such is the race to make money in space. Sometimes it leads to fame and fortune. And sometimes it leads to a hard call to investors.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.