Prior to launch, pressures were high for Orbital ATK, the commercial spaceflight company contracted by NASA to fly cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Its last attempt at launching an Antares rocket in 2014 ended in a catastrophic failure, with the rocket exploding just seconds after lifting off from a launchpad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which is part of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility here on Wallops Island. [Photos: Antares Rocket Returns to Flight in Stunning Night Launch]
But on Monday, Orbital ATK did not disappoint.
Not only did Antares successfully blast off into space, but the rocket's performance actually exceeded expectations by soaring higher and faster than anticipated, Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Group, said in a post-launch press conference. He added that the extra lift will assist the company's Cygnus cargo ship, which hitched a ride into orbit on the Antares rocket to make the ISS delivery.
"There's no extra charge from the Flight Systems Group," Culbertson joked.
Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA's space station program, acknowledged that the mission took longer to get off the ground than expected. The launch was initially slated to lift off during summer, but was delayed to allow more time for checks, as well as due to weather events. "These things are always harder than you expect them to be in many ways, but it was done right, and that was the most important thing," he said.
"It's great when things work the way they did tonight," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said during a speech on NASA TV shortly after the launch, adding that the cargo flight is critical for the space station as well as space exploration in general — even for the journey to Mars.
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), issued a statement late Sunday congratulating Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Orbital ATK and NASA, "on tonight’s successful launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo vehicle to the International Space Station."
"It’s great to see ISS commercial resupply missions flying out of Virginia's spaceport again, carrying commercial payloads for companies including NanoRacks and CASIS, all working together to expand the commercial space enterprise in low-Earth orbit,” Stallmer added.
Orbital ATK's incredible launch yesterday got Cygnus off to a great start. Now the spacecraft is on its way to the ISS, where it will dock on Sunday (Oct. 23). Astronauts aboard the space station will unload the cargo supplies and science experiments before stuffing Cygnus full of garbage and sending it off to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.