NASA clears Orbital Sciences for test flight to space station

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA on Monday cleared a second commercial company to launch a cargo ship to the International Space Station, with blastoff slated this week from a Virginia spaceport.

If successful, Orbital Sciences Corp. would join privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, in flying supplies to the space station, a $100 billion research complex that orbits about 250 miles (about 400 km) above Earth.

Orbital Sciences' two-stage Antares rocket, which made a successful debut flight in April, is scheduled to lift off at 10:50 a.m. EDT (1450 GMT) on Wednesday from the Virginia-owned Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which operates under a lease agreement with NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.

The 133-foot (40.5 meter) tall rocket will be carrying the company's first Cygnus cargo capsule.

Like SpaceX's Dragon capsules, which so far have made three flights to the space station, Cygnus is intended to restore a U.S. supply line to the station following the retirement of NASA's space shuttles in 2011.

"We have them lined up to use them fairly regularly," NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters during a prelaunch press conference.

"This is what we said was going to be the fleet to take care of the U.S. segment (of the space station) and we need to have it," Suffredini said.

Russia, Europe and Japan also fly freighters to the station, a partnership of 15 nations.

Unlike traditional government contracts, NASA provided $684 million in seed funds as well as technical support to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to develop their rockets, capsules and launch facilities.

The firms also hold a combined $3.5 billion in contracts to fly cargo to the station for NASA.

SpaceX, which was awarded its development contract in 2006, is preparing to debut an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 rocket later this month.

NASA wants SpaceX to have two or three missions under its belt with the new rocket before resuming supply runs to the station, Suffredini said.

Orbital Sciences, which began its partnership with NASA 18 months later, stands to collect a final $2.5 million development payment from NASA upon completion of its demonstration flight to the station.

If the launch occurs as planned on Wednesday, astronauts aboard the station on Sunday plan to use a robotic crane to pluck the Cygnus capsule from orbit and attach it to a docking port.

Unlike Dragon capsules, Cygnus spacecraft are designed to burn up in the atmosphere after they are loaded with trash and depart the station.

For its orbital debut, Cygnus will be carrying a half-load of about 1,543 pounds (700 kg) of food and other cargo considered "non-essential" by NASA in case the rocket or spacecraft encounters problems and cannot reach the station.

"For a demo flight, we don't typically fill them up," Suffredini said.

Cygnus is expected to remain docked at the station for about a month. Should the mission be successful, Orbital Sciences plans to return to that station in December for the first flight under a $1.9 billion cargo resupply contract with NASA.

For now, NASA is the only customer for Cygnus, but Orbital Sciences expects new business as the United States and other countries launch exploration initiatives beyond the space station's orbit.

"We think Cygnus has the capability to do a lot more than just deliver cargo to the station," said Frank Culbertson, a former astronaut who now serves as Orbital Science's executive vice president.

Thales Alenia Space, a consortium led by Europe's largest defense electronics company, France's Thales , is a prime contractor on the capsule. (Editing by Kevin Gray; and Jackie Frank)

Matches

MORE TOP STORIES TODAY

Rajasthan edge low-scoring thriller

Rajasthan edge low-scoring thriller

The bowlers restricted Hyderabad to 133 for 6 before Rahane and Binny took Rajasthan over the line. More »

Maxwell blitz takes Punjab home

Maxwell blitz takes Punjab home

The Kings XI batsman blasted a 43-ball 95 to help his team pull off a massive chase against Chennai Super Kings. More »

Bangalore vs Mumbai: A battle of the big-hitters

Bangalore vs Mumbai: A battle of the big-hitters

As two of the most glamorous sides in the Indian T20 league, the focus of the match between Mumbai and Bangalore will invariably be on the middle-order… More »

BCCI lacks leaders to take on Srinivasan, says Manohar

BCCI lacks leaders to take on Srinivasan, says Manohar

Two former BCCI presidents, Shashank Manohar and Jagmohan Dalmiya, have reacted strongly to the news of the BCCI calling an emergent meeting on Sunday… More »

Pietersen ridicules idea of day-night Tests

Pietersen ridicules idea of day-night Tests

Kevin Pietersen has ridiculed the idea of day-night Test cricket, saying the game would be so different to proper Test cricket that we will need a whole… More »

Beleaguered Yuvraj tees off to Sharjah's delight

Beleaguered Yuvraj tees off to Sharjah's delight

Yuvraj Singh was hardly convincing to begin with against Delhi, but a big dose of crowd support and a helping of poor bowling meant he had the opportunity… More »

Stressed Trott stands down again

Stressed Trott stands down again

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) on Friday confirmed that batsman Jonathan Trott is to take another break from all cricket with immediate eff… More »

PCB starts another coach hunt

PCB starts another coach hunt

The PCB has decided to not extend the contracts of head coach Moin Khan, fielding coach Shoaib Mohammad and batting consultant Zaheer Abbas, and has invited… More »

Pakistan cricketers face probe

Pakistan cricketers face probe

Pakistani cricket authorities have launched an investigation after a number of current international stars played in exhibition matches in the United States… More »

Fiery star Stokes bids to curb his temper

Fiery star Stokes bids to curb his temper

England all-rounder Ben Stokes admits he must keep his anger under control if he is to end his international exile. More »

Bangalore's arsenal blazes to victory

Bangalore's arsenal blazes to victory

Yuvraj Singh was back to his best in his first match for Royal Challengers Bangalore. More »

BCCI to meet before next court hearing

BCCI to meet before next court hearing

The BCCI will hold an emergent working committee meeting on April 20 to discuss the future course of action with regard to the Supreme Court hearing concerning… More »

Gavaskar wants a clean IPL

Gavaskar wants a clean IPL

"Integrity is non-negotiable..." says the BCCI's interim chief ahead of Season 7 of the tainted league. More »

Time for Chennai to enter familiar cocoon

Time for Chennai to enter familiar cocoon

Chennai have an emphatic 8-3 lead in the head-to-head with Punjab, with one game tied More »

Kallis, Narine star in KKR win

Kallis, Narine star in KKR win

An all-round display saw Knight Riders thump Mumbai Indians by 41 runs in the IPL-7 opener. More »

'Yak' Kallis still on top of his game

'Yak' Kallis still on top of his game

The 38-year-old South African veteran turned it on for Kolkata Knight RIders in the opening match of IPL-7. More »

Rajasthan and Hyderabad face-off

Rajasthan and Hyderabad face-off

A quality that defines Rajasthan and Hyderabad is consistency. Rajasthan was one among two teams to enjoy complete dominance at home last season. Hyderabad… More »

Srinivasan named in fixing report: SC

Srinivasan named in fixing report: SC

The court emphasised that the tainted administrator can no longer work for the BCCI. More »

Yuvraj happy to play for RCB: Kohli

Yuvraj happy to play for RCB: Kohli

New-look RCB will play their first game of IPL-7 on Thursday. More »

IPL: News Line

IPL: News Line

A round-up of all the news from this season of the IPL. More »

Shane Watson issues moral warning

Shane Watson issues moral warning

'Everyone knows what is right and what is wrong and if you do the wrong thing it will be found out' More »

Why I'm not looking forward to the IPL

Why I'm not looking forward to the IPL

Welcome to another season of a league that many watch but few trust. More »

Johnson may quit T20s for Tests

Johnson may quit T20s for Tests

Australia's Mitchell Johnson may quit limited-overs cricket to prolong his test career with an eye on the 2015 Ashes series in England, the fast bowler… More »

Nepal players call off boycott

Nepal players call off boycott

Thaw in relations after formation of an advisory committee that would work in tandem with the Cricket Association of Nepal. More »