WALLOPS ISLAND, Va — Until recently, NASA’s Wallops Research Center, located in Virginia, was one of NASA’s lesser-known centers. This perception is set to change today with the first launch of an Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket, scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. EDT this afternoon. This launch will take place from Wallops Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s (MARS) Pad-0A. If all goes according to plan, liftoff could bring the space flight spotlight into focus at Wallops Flight Facility.
The Wallops Flight Facility (WFF), located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, is used to launch rockets for both NASA as well as other government agencies. WFF has an established infrastructure that supports a variety of launch vehicles, including the aforementioned Antares, Minotaur, and a variety of other rockets. The pace and tone of operations at WFF could change after the first launch of Antares.
This will be the first launch that Orbital will conduct toward NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract. Both the COTS and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts were established to provide cargo resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS).
Today’s planned mission will be conducted to validate the Antares launch vehicle, which Orbital plans to use to send its Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS for both COTS and CRS contracts. The Antares, slated to launch this afternoon, will carry a mass simulator for the company’s Cygnus spacecraft.
Estimates place the value of the COTS contract that Orbital has with NASA at $288 million.
Orbital has stated that if everything goes well tomorrow, the pace at which it launches Antares will more than likely be “brisk.”
WFF could go from a sleepy facility that generally launches sounding and other less-powerful and well-known rockets (compared to the powerful and well-known Delta, Atlas, and Falcon 9s), to a center that is at the forefront of the commercial space revolution. If everything goes as planned today, WFF will become one of the few places in the world from which spacecraft are launched to the International Space Station (ISS).
When many think of U.S. launch sites, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and perhaps Vandenberg Air Force Base in California come to mind—few think of Wallops Flight Facility. This is despite the fact that WFF’s involvement in the space program stretches back to the earliest days of the space age.
More than 16,000 launches have taken place from Wallops. High-altitude balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other research aircraft have been deployed from WFF since the mid-1940s.
Wallops has been used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or “NOAA,” which uses Wallops to conduct science research missions—as occasionally do commercial organizations, too, but nothing on the scale of a COTS mission. This week’s flight is a test flight. If it is successfully completed, the next launch of Antares, scheduled to take place this June, will see the first flight of the company’s Cygnus spacecraft. This is all being done in an effort to have Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft conduct eight resupply missions to the International Space Station.
Orbital has a lot riding on this and upcoming flights. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has already accomplished all of the requirements under the COTS contract and has moved on conducting resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS).
“We were awarded $100 million—less than the other awardee (SpaceX)—and we weren’t initially planning on a test flight, but we realized that it would allow us some risk mitigation and lessons learned,” said Orbital’s Frank Culbertson, a former shuttle astronaut who flew four missions on the orbiter.
Antares , formally known as the Taurus II, is, like most launch vehicles, comprised of components made by a number of contractors. Antares is no different; ATK, Aerojet, and a number of other contractors have contributed to Antares.
ATK’s Director of Business Development for the company’s Defense and Commercial Division Hal Murcock feels that Orbital’s efforts will continue to have a positive influence on the area—and its history.
“ATK has collaborated with Orbital on other launch vehicles—having provided solid rocket motors for their Minotaur launch vehicle, which launches from Wallops—but this is by far the largest vehicle that has launched out of Wallops, and based upon Orbital’s contract with NASA to resupply the space station, this’ll be a sustained effort for at least the next couple of years, and we’re hoping for more business after that … I think that there’s going to be a substantial impact over what we’ve already seen here.”
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