Orbital Sciences Launches a New Rocket

ImageUp until now the word Antares has had only one meaning in our language, the given name of a star, but not anymore.  Sure, it is still the name of a giant red binary star, the brightest in the constellation Scorpio, about 424 light-years from Earth. The word Antares has its roots in ancient Greek meaning simulating Mars.  It looked red to them, just like Mars.

However, things change.  On Sunday, April 21, from a beach on Wallops Island Virginia, our own Orbital Sciences launched its newest horse in its extensive stable of rockets, the Antares. And for the first time in my memory, a first launch of a new rocket didn’t end prematurely in a puff of smoke or debris cloud. It went so smoothly that almost no one heard about it. That’s success in the rocket industry but a marketing failure.

Lift-off took place at 5:00 p.m. (EDT) followed by payload separation approximately 10 minutes later and mission completion about 18 minutes after launch. Now that doesn’t mean it went to the ISS. This was only a test mission to make sure the new rocket knew which way was up. It did with flying colors.

ImageDavid Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and CEO had this to say afterward: “Today marked a giant step forward for the Antares program, with a fully successful inaugural flight of the largest and most complex rocket the company has ever developed and flown. With its successful test flight from the MARS pad at Wallops Island, we will now move forward toward completing the full demonstration mission of our system to resupply the International Space Station with essential cargo in just a couple of months.”

He’s talking about the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract Orbital signed with NASA in 2008 worth $1.9 billion. Orbital’s Antares is to deliver up to 20,000 kilograms of supplies to the ISS over eight separate missions from 2013 to 2016. For all you math weenies out there who haven’t already ran the numbers, that works out to be about $43,000 per pound. Now before you get your knickers in a knot, this is a development program and only the beginning of many flights. NASA expects Orbital to fly the Antares scores of times before it’s done. And Orbital has other customers lined up which will also bring the price per pound down considerably. What exactly that will be, well, I broke my crystal ball a few years back…

In a typical mission, an Antares rocket would launch a Cygnus unmanned supply ship into orbit where the spacecraft would navigate to the ISS and deliver about 2 tons of crew supplies, spare parts and science experiments per trip. The now empty Cygnus would then be loaded with the stations garbage, de-orbited and completely burn up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.  Now that re-entry would be something to watch if only NASA would permit it, which it will never do.  They have made space exploration boring.

ImageSpeaking of boring, this is what NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had to say: “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.  Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. 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.  President Obama has presented a budget for next year that ensures the United States will remain the world leader in space exploration, and a critical part of this budget is the funding needed to advance NASA’s commercial space initiative. In order to stop outsourcing American space launches, we need to have the President’s budget enacted. It’s a budget that’s good for our economy, good for the U.S. Space program — and good for American taxpayers.”

ImageAnd if that didn’t put you to sleep, read this gem from John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Today’s successful test flight of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket from the spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, demonstrates an additional private space-launch capability for the United States and lays the groundwork for the first Antares cargo mission to the International Space Station later this year.  The growing potential of America’s commercial space industry and NASA’s use of public-private partnerships are central to President Obama’s strategy to ensure U.S. leadership in space exploration while pushing the bounds of scientific discovery and innovation in the 21st century. With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit.  I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA teams at Wallops, and look forward to more groundbreaking missions in the months and years ahead.”

They sure do know how to throw a wet blanket on the party. Ignoring them for the moment, let me just end with saying congratulations to Orbital Sciences.  Job well started!  Now get busy!

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