This picture of the International Space Station was photographed from the space shuttle Atlantis as the orbiting complex and the shuttle performed their relative separation in the early hours of July 19, 2011. The western Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are visible below. Onboard the station were Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko, Expedition 28 commander; Sergei Volkov and Alexander Samokutyaev, both flight engineers; Japan Aerospace Exploration astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, and NASA astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, all flight engineers. Onboard the shuttle were NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson, STS-135 commander; Doug Hurley, pilot; and Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, both mission specialists.
Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images
In this handout provided by NASA, The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket launches from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on April 21, 2013 in Wallops Island, Virginia. NASA's commercial space partner, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is due to launch another Antares rocket Sept. 18, 2013.
In this handout from NASA, the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with its Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard, is seen during sunrise on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility September 17, 2013 in Wallops Island, Virginia. NASA's commercial space partner, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is targeting a September 18 launch for its demonstration cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.
US astronaut Michael Hopkins (L) together with Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov (C) and Sergey Ryazanskiy, prepare to answer questions during their final preflight exam at the Gagarin Cosmonauts' Training Centre in Star City centre outside Moscow on September 4, 2013. The three-man crew is scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the Russian leased Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome on September 25.
Backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-134 crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 11:55 p.m. (EDT) on May 29, 2011. Endeavour spent 11 days, 17 hours and 41 minutes attached to the orbiting laboratory.
A commercial cargo ship made its successful debut Wednesday, rocketing toward the International Space Station and doubling the number of NASA's private suppliers for the high-flying lab.
Orbital Sciences Corp. launched its first-ever supply ship from Virginia's Eastern Shore, the departing point for a NASA moonshot less than two weeks ago.
"Look out ISS, here we come," the company said in a tweet.
The capsule named Cygnus — bearing 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and goodies for the astronauts — is due at the orbiting outpost on Sunday, following four days of testing.
The Virginia-based Orbital Sciences is only the second business to attempt a shipment like this. The California-based SpaceX company has been delivering station supplies for more than a year under a NASA contract.
Orbital Sciences' unmanned Antares rocket — named for the bright red star — blasted into a clear sky from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. A test launch in April went well. So did this one, with a camera on the rocket providing dramatic views of the coastline. The entire commercial effort dates back five years.
It was Wallops' second high-profile launch this month. On Sept. 6, the company took part in a NASA moonshot that dazzled skywatchers along the East Coast. Wednesday's late-morning liftoff, while at a much more convenient hour, was not nearly as visible because of the daylight.
The three space station residents, circling 260 miles high, watched the launch via a live link provided by Mission Control in Houston.
"Good luck!" space station astronaut Karen Nyberg said in a tweet. She's expecting a fresh stash of chocolate.
Come Sunday, Nyberg and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano will use the space station'srobot arm to grab Cygnus from orbit and attach it to the space station. Also on board is a Russian. The crew will double in size next week when another American and two Russians lift off aboard a Russian rocket from Kazakhstan.
NASA is paying Orbital Sciences and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, to keep the space station stocked since the retirement of the shuttles. The other countries involved in the station count also make deliveries.
The bigger SpaceX Dragon capsule has the advantage of returning items to Earth. The Cygnus will be filled with station trash and cut loose for a fiery destruction upon re-entry. That's how the Russian, European and Japanese supply ships wind up, too — as incinerators.
"We categorize it as disposable cargo," said Orbital Sciences' executive vice president, Frank Culbertson. "Others may call it trash."
If all goes well, Orbital Sciences hopes to launch another Cygnus in December, right before Christmas. That will be the first true operational mission under a $1.9 billion contract.
The SpaceX contract is worth $1.6 billion.
SpaceX is working to modify its Dragon capsule for space station crews, so NASA doesn't have to keep paying tens of millions of dollars to the Russians per ticket. Orbital Sciences envisions strictly non-human payloads for the Cygnus — but not necessarily just in Earth's backyard.
"We'd be happy to help a mission go to Mars," said Culbertson, a former astronaut who lived on the space station in 2001.
On Wednesday at least, the focus was low-Earth orbit. "This is a big deal for us," Culbertson said.
Roll out of the Antares/Cygnus rocket from the Horizontal Integration Facility to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport launch Pad-0A and then staged to vertical launch position at Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. on Sept. 14, 2013. | Credit: NASA
This story has been updated.