Sunday was a busy day for the commercial space industry.
First, a new spacecraft built by Dulles, Va.,-based Orbital Sciences docked at the international space station. Hours later, a souped-up rocket built by tech titan Elon Musk’s company SpaceX roared off a launch pad in California, a harbinger of grander things to come.
Orbital and SpaceX have NASA contracts to supply cargo to the space station. SpaceX had already reached the station three times, and Orbital matched the feat Sunday when its Cygnus spacecraft parked itself at the orbiting laboratory, ready to offload about 1,500 pounds of food, clothing and scientific experiments designed by students.
Orbital launched Cygnus on Sept. 18 atop the company’s rocket, Antares, from Wallops Island, Va. Although that launch went off without a hitch, a software glitch delayed Cygnus’s rendezvous with the station until Sunday. In the meantime, the company had to demonstrate that the unpiloted Cygnus could make delicate maneuvers in the vicinity of the laboratory, which is currently home to six astronauts.
We had to go through some tough wickets, and we did with flying colors, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said. It was a great day for the whole company.
With the hardest part of this demonstration mission a success, Orbital is now on track to carry out eight cargo missions to the station under a $1.9 billion NASA contract.