WASHINGTON – Sunday was a busy day for the commercial space industry. First, a new spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences docked at the International Space Station. Hours later, a souped-up rocket built by SpaceX roared off a California launchpad.
Orbital and SpaceX have NASA contracts to supply cargo to the space station. SpaceX vehicles have already reached the ISS three times. Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft parked itself at the orbiting laboratory Sunday, ready to offload food, clothing and scientific experiments designed by students.
Orbital launched Cygnus on Sept. 18 atop the company’s rocket, Antares, from Wallops Island, Virginia. Although that launch went off without a hitch, a software glitch delayed Cygnus’ 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.
Orbital is now on track to carry out eight cargo missions to the station under a $1.9 billion NASA contract. The company hopes to launch again in December. SpaceX, meanwhile, has a $1.6 billion contract for supplying cargo, and it is one of three companies, along with Sierra Nevada and Boeing, hoping to win a contract to taxi astronauts to the station.
The 68-meter Falcon 9 “version 1.1,” which ignited Sunday at Vandenberg Air Force Base, is an upgrade of a SpaceX rocket that has already gone into space five times. This version, with more powerful engines, carried to orbit a small satellite that will study the weather in space.