Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Antares Launch, The Mid-Atlantic Space Coast And The 21st Century Space Age

The Antares rocket clears the launch pad on its way to orbit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Sunday's launch of the Antares rocket, developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, was a significant step toward achieving NASA's goal of acquiring a second American provider of commercial delivery of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  It was also a significant step for the Mid-Atlantic region, in particular the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, in participating in the the growing 21st Century Space Age which is based on increased partnership among commercial, government and international players.

Orbital will now proceed to a demonstration of its Cygnus spacecraft delivering cargo to the ISS, tentatively scheduled for late June. The Cygnus demonstration will complete NASA's  Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and Orbital will then join another company, SpaceX, in providing this service over the next several years under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. NASA is also partnering with several companies, including SpaceX, to develop commercial crew transportation to ISS, however Orbital has no plans to compete to provide that service.

This launch was a significant step not only for the Antares rocket and the commercial supply of cargo to ISS. It opens a wider future to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), colocated at the NASA facility at Wallops Island, VA. Located on the Eastern Shore shared by Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility has hosted suborbital and small orbital launches for decades, but Antares is the largest rocket ever to launch from this site and is comparable to the medium lift rockets that have frequently launched from  Cape Canaveral, FL.

Along with providing cargo resupply to the ISS, Orbital hopes to market the Antares to other government and commercial customers, launching out of Wallops and other sites. Meanwhile, the company will use its Minotaur V rocket to launch NASA's LADEE spacecraft to orbit the Moon. This mission is scheduled to launch from Wallops in August.

With a growing list of private ventures to explore the Moon, asteroids and even Mars, the MARS at Wallops Island is in a position to participate in these ventures. The runway at Wallops could also eventually host suborbital companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR carrying researchers and tourists into space for brief flights.

The area around Wallops includes Chincoteague, a laid back resort town most famous for the wild ponies residing on the nearby wildlife refuge. The surrounding area is largely rural and is facing trying economic times. The communities are excited about the new business and jobs the spaceport is bringing to the area. Other nearby Virginia and Maryland communities, including Ocean City, MD, a major family vacation resort, stand to benefit from the high tech jobs and additional tourism the spaceport will generate.

This area could become known as the Mid-Atlantic Space Coast as the activity and excitement at Wallops Island grow in the new and dynamic 21st Century Space Age.

NOTE: I observed the launch on Sunday from a site ~ 3 miles from the launch pad. Here is the amateur video I took of this historic launch. The first noise you hear is the wind, but the rocket's roar can be heard after launch.

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