CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The International Space Station is about to get its first delivery from Virginia in two years.
Orbital ATK, one of NASA's shippers, aims to launch its own cargo ship Sunday night from Wallops Island. The company's retooled Antares rocket will do the honours.
Company officials were ecstatic on Saturday night, the eve of the launch.
"Welcome back to Wallops," beamed Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK's space systems president.
An Antares promptly exploded the last time one took off, on a space station supply run for NASA on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital ATK spent the past two years redesigning the unmanned rocket — replacing the old-time Russian engines with newer ones, among other things — and rebuilding the launch pad. It also made good on two station deliveries using another company's rockets in Florida.
"This is a very exciting time for us at Orbital ATK," Culbertson said. "A lot of hard work has gone into this."
The deputy manager of NASA's space station program, Joel Montalbano, couldn't help but get personal.
"We've missed these guys and we've missed seeing launches from here," he told reporters.
More than 130 VIPs were expected from Capitol Hill for the launch at 8:03 p.m. on Sunday. In fact, sky gazers along much of the East Coast — Washington and New York included — were in for a treat. Weather permitting, the launch should be visible as far south as Charleston, South Carolina; as far north as Boston; and as far west as Pittsburgh.
"We're very excited ... to have the biggest show back in town," said Sarah Daugherty, test director at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
The Antares will carry up a Cygnus cargo carrier, named after the swan constellation. Altogether, five Cygnus ships have delivered food, clothes, equipment and science experiments to the space station since 2013.
"Every cargo mission is like Christmas, right, and they never know what they're going to find when they open the hatch," said Culbertson, a former astronaut who lived on the space station more than a decade ago.
The latest Cygnus is packed with more than 5,000 pounds of goods, including presents for the space station astronauts. The current crew of three will double in size with the launch of three more astronauts from Kazakhstan on Wednesday.
Culbertson and others acknowledged they were nervous going into Sunday's launch, but stressed their confidence in the changes to the Antares. Everything seemed to be going well at the pad over the weekend, following a succession of rocket tests in recent weeks and months. Even better, forecasters were calling for a 95 per cent chance of good flying weather — this after Hurricanes Matthew and Nicole caused a slight flight delay.
Matthew held up work at the Virginia pad a week ago, while this week Nicole threatened a tracking station in Bermuda that's necessary for the launch. Fortunately, the station was not damaged.
As it turns out, now NASA's other supplier, SpaceX, is grounded. During a test last month at Cape Canaveral, a SpaceX rocket exploded on the pad; the company is still trying to figure out exactly what happened.
NASA hired the private companies to keep the space station stocked following the shuttles' retirement in 2011. The space agency instead is focusing on getting astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Mars is the prime target.
Orbital ATK: http://www.orbitalatk.com/