On September 18, 2013, Orbital Sciences launched its first delivery run to the International Space Station. The flawless liftoff of the Antares vehicle took place at the Wallops Flight Center in Virginia at 10:58 am Eastern Time. The Cygnus spacecraft reached orbit a few moments later. All systems appear to be functioning normally as the craft heads for docking.
This is a great day for the space industry. We now have two commercial providers of cargo for the ISS. Rather than having a government designed vehicle, we have two private spacecraft capable of doing the work for a lot less money.
SpaceX was the first company to demonstrate the ability to deliver cargo for NASA. They have launched the Falcon9/Dragon Cargo vehicle to the ISS twice now with a third coming in early 2014.
With Orbital Sciences now in the mix, there are a lot more options available to the ISS team. If a cargo flight is delayed for any reason, critical components can shift to the other vehicle for delivery. It’s like having both UPS and FedEx available to send your package. If one company has issues, the other can be called upon to launch.
Orbital’s Cygnus, unlike SpaceX’s Dragon, can only take cargo up. It does not have return capability. Instead, it has a slightly larger cargo capacity. Spaceflight is all about trade offs. Orbital made some for cargo space, SpaceX made some for returnability. Both are valid business models.
Each company has a contract for a specified number of launches. Talks have already started about either extending the contracts or starting new ones for even more deliveries to the ISS. Getting material up and down from space is a major concern. Dragon and Cygnus help to provide these services for a decent fixed price.