New US rocket blasts off from Virginia launch pad

CAPE CANAVERAL (REUTERS) - A privately owned rocket built in partnership with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station blasted off on Sunday for a debut test flight from a new commercial spaceport in Virginia.

The 13-storey Antares rocket, developed and flown by Orbital Sciences Corp, lifted off at 5 pm EDT (5am Monday Singapore time) from a Virginia-owned and operated launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

"Beautiful view," said NASA launch commentator Kyle Herring as live video from the rocket, broadcast on NASA TV, showed the booster riding atop a bright plume of fire above the Atlantic Ocean.

Ten minutes later, the rocket deposited its payload - a 3,800-kg dummy capsule - into an orbit 254 km above the planet, fulfilling the primary goal of the test flight.

Orbital Sciences and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, hold NASA contracts worth a combined US$3.5 billion (S$4.3 billion) to fly cargo to the space station, a US$100 billion research outpost that flies about 400 km above Earth.

NASA turned to commercial suppliers after retiring the space shuttles in 2011.

Flight controllers radioed news of Antares' successful debut to the station crew shortly after launch.

"Wahoo, that's super," replied station commander Chris Hadfield, with the Canadian Space Agency.

"Congratulations to all concerned. That bodes well for all of our futures," Mr Hadfield said.

On its next flight, scheduled for late June or early July, another Antares rocket will carry a Cygnus cargo ship on a demonstration mission to the station.

California-based SpaceX completed three test flights and last year began delivering cargo to the station under its $1.6 billion contract.

The debut of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket was delayed by the construction of its launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located on the southern end of NASA's Wallops Island facility. Two launch attempts last week were canceled due to a last-minute technical problem followed by bad weather at the launch site.

"It's been a long slog," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after the launch. "It's absolutely incredible what this team has done."

NASA's share of developing the Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule will total about $288 million upon successful completion of the second and final planned test flight.

Combined, NASA and Orbital Sciences spent about US$300 million to develop Cygnus and slightly more than that to develop the rocket, Orbital Sciences Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson told reporters after the launch.

"As a company it was a huge risk to invest in this," he said. "But I think it's going to demonstrate a commercial capability that will pay off in the long run." "With the right people pulling together and with great teammates, we were able to achieve this. We're real happy," Mr Culbertson said.

NASA's contribution to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule development was US$396 million.

Standing 40 metres tall and packing 335,658 kg of thrust at liftoff, Antares was the largest rocket to fly from Wallops Island, which has been operating for 68 years as a launch site for smaller suborbital rockets, high-altitude balloons and research aircraft.

In addition to station cargo runs, Orbital Sciences has a separate contract to launch a NASA moon probe aboard a Minotaur 5 rocket from Wallops in August.

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