Soaring into a brilliant blue sky from a new launch pad on the Virginia coastline, an Antares rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corp. blasted off on a successful test flight Sunday, inaugurating a new launch system to resupply the International Space Station.
The first launch of the Antares rocket is a major step in a joint venture between Orbital Sciences and NASA to develop two commercial space transportation systems to resupply the space station, replacing much of the cargo-carrying capacity lost when the space shuttle retired in 2011.
"Today's successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA's plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.
NASA is turning to the private sector for commercial cargo and crew launches to the space station. Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which has completed its series of test missions, were picked by NASA for cargo services.
"Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket," Bolden said. "In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America's newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users."
Sunday's demonstration flight paves the way for another mission this summer, in which Orbital Sciences will launch its second Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft on top on a mission all the way to the space station.
If successful, the Cygnus mission this summer will clear the path for at least eight operational cargo runs using the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo craft.
Engineers will analyze data from Sunday's launch before approving the flight to space station, but early indications are everything well according to plan.
"It certainly was an amazing achievement for Orbital today, a great day for NASA, and another historic day for commercial spaceflight in America," said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which oversees the agency's agreement with Orbital. "The flight today was just beautiful, and it looks like the preliminary data says all the objectives we established for the flight today were 100 percent met."
The 13-story rocket lifted off at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) from launch pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport - a facility financed by the government of Virginia - and ascended into the sky atop a pillar of bluish golden flame from two main engines.
The launch started slow - as designed - with the rocket's two engines providing just enough power to lift the 300-ton booster from the ground. As the rocket burned propellant, and got lighter, the vehicle accelerated southeast from the launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, disappearing from the view of observers on the ground about four minutes into the launch.
"After a while it was going like a scalded ape," said Frank Culbertson, a veteran former NASA astronaut and executive vice president at Orbital Sciences. "It was accelerating quickly, and everything looked very good as it climbed into the sky, and it was a beautiful blue sky today."
The first stage engines, built in Russia in the 1970s and modernized by Aerojet, powered the launcher into the upper atmosphere, sending a wall of sound across the Virginia coast heard for miles around.
The twin-engine first stage shut down less than four minutes into the mission, releasing the rocket's solid-fueled second stage to propel the booster into orbit.
The Castor 30 second stage motor, built by ATK, ignited for a burn lasting two-and-a-half minutes, accelerating the rocket to more than 17,000 mph. Engineers declared the rocket reached orbit, and the upper stage deployed a 8,377-pound block of aluminum designed to mimic the mass characteristics of the Cygnus spacecraft, which will take the dummy payload's place on the next Antares launch.
"All of that demonstrated that when we do this again, we know how to make this happen," Culbertson said. "We'll get that payload - the Cygnus - into orbit and on its way to the International Space Station so it can continue its mission, and we can provide the cargo, the experiments, clothing and food that they need."
The instrumented mass simulator is just dead weight on its own, but a suite of more than 70 accelerometers, thermocouples, thermometers, strain gauges and microphones beamed data back to ground antennas through the rocket's communications radio before it severed ties with the launch vehicle.
The rocket reached a near-circular orbit with an average altitude of about 155 miles, or 250 kilometers.
"We will have to do some additional evaluation to see if we're exactly on target, or if we need to make some adjustments," Culbertson said. "If we need to make adjustments to future flights, we will do so, but we certainly achieved orbit and that was the main goal."
It was the largest rocket ever to launch from the Wallops Flight Facility, which has hosted about 16,000 launches over its 68-year history. With funding from the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, the historic launch base added a new $120 million launch pad with equipment to support larger rockets and cryogenic liquid propellant.
Liquid propellant is a new paradigm for Orbital Sciences, which has flown scores of satellite launchers with all-solid-fueled stages.
Orbital hopes the Antares rocket, which is now on contract to fly nine more times, finds business launching commercial, military and scientific satellites over the next decade or longer.
The 31-year-old company, based in Dulles, Va., started working on the Antares rocket in 2007 as an internal project. Orbital Sciences won an agreement with NASA in February 2008 to share to design, build and test a cargo transportation system using the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.
The agreement with NASA is now worth up to $288 million. The space agency pays Orbital upon completion of preset milestones, and Orbital is expected to collect a $4 million payment following Sunday's successful test flight.
Including investments from NASA, Orbital and the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Antares rocket, Cygnus spacecraft and the new launch pad collectively cost nearly $1 billion.
According to Culbertson, development of the Cygnus spacecraft cost about $300 million. The Antares rocket cost a little more, he said, declining to give a specific figure. An official with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority said the launch pad cost about $120 million.
In December 2008, NASA chose Orbital and SpaceX for operational resupply flights to the space station. NASA's $1.9 billion contract with Orbital covers eight missions to carry at least 20 metric tons to the orbiting complex. SpaceX received a $1.6 billion deal for 12 missions, including the capability to return equipment to Earth.