CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A new U.S. cargo ship is chasing down the International Space Station after a successful launch of its maiden flight Wednesday morning from Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Orbital Sciences Corp.'s unmanned Cygnus is on course to reach the outpost early Sunday and become the second privately operated vehicle to accomplish that feat, along with SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which launches from Cape Canaveral.
"This is the way of the future," said Frank Culbertson, Orbital executive vice president.
"This is how we're going to have to operate going forward in order to maintain a robust space program, and I think we're demonstrating it can be done."
The demonstration mission is the final step in a public-private partnership under which NASA has helped Orbital and SpaceX develop rockets and spacecraft to resupply the station after the space shuttle's retirement.
The space agency provided advice and a combined $684 million to the two companies, including up to $288 million for Dulles, Va.-based Orbital.
Orbital's 13-story Antares rocket blasted off at 10:58 a.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island to start what NASA called a picture-perfect flight.
The rocket dropped Cygnus in orbit 10 minutes later, and the spacecraft quickly deployed its power-generating solar arrays and activated thrusters and navigation systems.
"The status is all great," said Culbertson.
Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, said Wednesday's launch represented "another historic day for commercial spaceflight" while cautioning that many challenges lay ahead.
"There's still a lot to be done," he said.
The nearly 17-foot Cygnus over the next several days must pass tests of its maneuvering and communications systems while raising its orbit and catching up to the station 260 miles above Earth.
Only then will NASA be comfortable it is safe to approach the station and its three-person crew.
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, assisted by American Karen Nyberg, plans to capture the cylindrical Cygnus with a robotic arm around 7:30 a.m. Sunday.
During its month long stay, the crew will unload 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and other cargo NASA could afford to lose if the mission went badly, and then stuff it with trash.
The Cygnus and its contents will be destroyed upon re-entering the atmosphere.
Orbital hopes to launch another Cygnus as soon as December, the first of eight resupply missions planned under a $1.9 billion contract NASA awarded in 2008.
"We'll be ready to go before the end of the year to deliver again," said Culbertson.
NASA says the commercial cargo missions are key to enabling it to focus on more challenging human missions deeper into space, possibly starting with an asteroid in 2021.
"If we needed more tangible proof (that) this is a new era of exploration, it's right here, right now," said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.
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