Despite the Last Explosion, Orbital Is Set to Launch Again

Orbital ATK obviously isn't a company to let one (major) setback hold it back.

Just over a year after Orbital's Antares rocket thundered majestically off a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia and then rather unceremoniously exploded six seconds later, Orbital is about to launch another rocket loaded with supplies for the International Space Station. 

Orbital is planning on launching its Cygnus spacecraft during a 30-minute window that starts at 4:55 p.m. on Thursday. Unlike the last ill-fated resupply mission, this time around Orbital is going a little old school, launching from the Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. That's probably for the best considering there's a lot about this particular resupply mission that could raise eyebrows, since everything from the Cygnus to the rocket it's launching on has been changed since Orbital's last messy try in October 2014.

This will be the first time out for Orbital's "enhanced variant" of the Cygnus spacecraft, which now is bigger and has new fuel tanks. The Cygnus previously could only carry about 5,000 pounds of equipment to the ISS, but in the past year the craft has been expanded to allow it to tote even more stuff. During this mission the craft will carry more than 7,000 pounds of things, including science and research equipment, vehicle hardware needed to conduct research and experiments aboard the ISS and crew supplies. 

Meanwhile, NASA itself has already stated that there are concerns about Orbital getting back to the launchpad so quickly. For one thing, NASA hasn't had the best track record lately when it comes to its commercial resupply partners.  The Orbital explosion might not have been such a huge deal except that it was followed by another mishap the following June when SpaceX's Falcon 9 disintegrated over Florida.

The two explosions together meant that NASA was stuck without a way to get supplies to ISS crew using a rocket launched from U.S. soil. It really made the whole commercial spaceflight endeavor look questionable, despite NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's official stance that NASA's future in space exploration depends on these commercial space companies (he reiterated NASA's commercial space fixation when he dropped by Spacecom in Houston two weeks ago) .

But not everyone at NASA has been thrilled with the reality of the commercial spaceflight partnership. In September, NASA's Office of the Inspector General came out with a scathing report on the Orbital explosion, contending that Orbital's plans to get itself up and running again in order to fulfill it's $1.9 billion contract with NASA by the end of 2016 isn't the best. Orbital employees are currently working hard to swap out the engine of its Antares rocket and get the thing up and running again, despite the fact that this actually is, you know, rocket science: One wrong tweak could see the Antares rocket once again become an expensive firework display on the launchpad during Orbital's next scheduled launch in March 2016. 

The NASA report also pointed out that the plans for this Orbital launch aren't to NASA's liking. Since the Antares isn't ready for this launch, Orbital is having the Cygnus piggy-back on the United Launch Alliance (the federal government’s main launch provider for military satellites and complex science missions) Atlas V rocket. All of this rushing is pretty much exactly the sort of thing that NASA doesn't like to do with its launches (NASA is an agency devoted to rigorous testing and procedure, which makes sense since NASA folks have experienced some of the most wrenching worst-case scenarios about what can go wrong when you're launching supplies — or astronauts — into space). As was noted in the report, Orbital's Cygnus has never been launched on the Atlas V before, and the rush to get this launch done by December didn't leave time for testing and doing all the things that need to be done to prevent another very expensive rocket explosion.

But despite NASA's reservations and the lack of testing, the Orbital is set to launch this Thursday. If everything goes off without a hitch, (i.e. doesn't go boom) the Cygnus will arrive at the ISS on Sunday. It'll be docked at the space station for about a month before the astronauts aboard send it back toward Earth where it will disintegrate during it's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere along with about 3,000 pounds of trash. 

And then Orbital will get ready to launch again in March, and we'll get to find out if the rejiggered Antares can, well, actually fly. 

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