Orbital Sciences Rocket Launches in Test for Space Delivery

An Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket lifted off in its maiden flight as the company prepares to eventually deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

The Antares rocket launched at 5 p.m. Washington time from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“Go baby go,” the Dulles, Virginia-based company said in a Twitter posting just after liftoff.

The mission is a practice run for Orbital and involves delivery of a simulated, unmanned supply ship to orbit. It won’t connect with the space station. If the test is successful, Orbital may begin regular deliveries to the station as early as September under a $1.9 billion contract.

“Orbital has to perform well if they want to be competitive,” William Loomis, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore, said in a phone interview before the launch. “As each milestone gets behind them, there’s less risk.”

Orbital is following the success of billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, which last May became the first company to deliver cargo to the station.

A planned launch on April 17 was scrubbed about 12 minutes before liftoff because a data cable prematurely disconnected from the rocket. An attempt yesterday was delayed because of wind.

SpaceX Competition

The company also scrapped a planned August, 2012 launch in part because of faulty fuel valves at the Wallops Island launchpad, Barron Beneski, an Orbital spokesman, said last year.

The stakes are high for Orbital because any setback raises the risk that NASA could award a greater share of future supply missions to Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, Loomis said.

Shares of Orbital have gained 18 percent this year after falling 5.2 percent in 2012. A successful launch might boost shares about 5 percent, Loomis, who has a buy rating on the company, wrote in an April 12 note to clients.

NASA is relying on companies such as Orbital and SpaceX to supply the space station with food and other cargo, after retiring its shuttle fleet in 2011. It also has agreements with the governments of Europe, Japan and Russia for the work.

Orbital’s contract with the U.S. space agency includes eight cargo resupply flights to the station. Closely held SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract for a dozen supply missions.

Cargo Ship

In today’s mission, the simulated cargo ship separated from the rocket about 10 minutes after the launch, according to NASA officials. It would remain in space for about two weeks before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The company plans to demonstrate its cargo-carrying ability with a flight to the space station in June or July, with regular supply trips beginning as early as September, Frank Culbertson, an Orbital executive vice president, said yesterday during a press conference at the Wallops Island NASA facility.

In those missions, an Antares rocket would launch Orbital’s unmanned supply ship known as Cygnus into orbit. The one-way spacecraft would then navigate to the space station and deliver about 2 tons of crew supplies, spare parts and science experiments per trip. It, too, will burn upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Orbital’s launch was also a milestone for the NASA facility, located 157 miles (253 kilometers) from the nation’s capital. The Antares was the largest rocket launched from the facility in its 67-year history.

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