New US private spacecraft launched to ISS

Updated: 2013-09-19 01:55


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WASHINGTON - A new privately owned US spaceship carrying food, clothing and other cargo blasted off Wednesday on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Cygnus spacecraft, built by US space firm Orbital Sciences Corp., was launched atop the company's Antares rocket at 10:58 am EDT (1458 GMT) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island off the US east coast.

"For the first time a fully operational Cygnus spacecraft is flying on its own toward the International Space Station! ... Cheers break out inside the launch control area," US space agency NASA said in its launch blog.

It is the maiden flight of Cygnus, which carries 1,300 pounds ( 589 kg) of various supplies and the second flight of Antares, which made a successful debut in April.

The goal of the mission is to demonstrate the capability of Orbital's cargo transportation system to deliver cargo to the space station.

"After its (the rocket's) flawless inaugural flight in April, we have been actively preparing for this next critical, much- anticipated milestone," David Thompson, Orbital's president and chief executive officer, said in a pre-launch statement.

"Our engineering and operations teams are very excited to be on the threshold of launching and conducting this mission, which they have been working toward for the last five years," Thompson said.

After launching to orbit, Cygnus will carry out a series of tests and maneuvers over a four-day period in a bid to demonstrate its readiness to rendezvous and berth with the station. Rendezvous is now planned for Sunday.

If everything goes as planned, the Virginia-based company plans to begin regularly scheduled cargo supply missions under its 1.9- billion-US-dollar Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with US space agency NASA later this year.

Orbital is currently scheduled to launch the first of eight CRS missions to the space station as early as December. All CRS flights will originate from Wallops Island, which is geographically well suited for space station missions and can also accommodate launches of scientific, defense and commercial satellites to other orbits.

Another US company, California-based SpaceX, made history in a May 2012 test flight when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle in history to deliver cargo to the space station and safely return cargo to Earth, a feat previously achieved only by governments.

Dragon has already made three trips to the space station and it still needs to complete another 10 to fulfill its 1.6-billion- dollar contract with NASA.

Before Dragon's liftoff, flights to the space station have always been a government-only affair. Until their retirement, US space shuttles carried most of the gear and many of the astronauts to the orbiting outpost. Since then, American astronauts have had to rely on Russian capsules for rides.

NASA is looking to the private sector, in this post-shuttle era, to get American astronauts launching again from US soil. It will be at least four to five years before the country's private operator is capable of flying astronauts.