April 6, 2013 at 8:33 PM ET
Orbital Sciences Corp. raised the first fully integrated Antares rocket on its Virginia launch pad on Saturday, setting the stage for its maiden flight to orbit later this month. A successful test launch would mark a giant leap toward using the Antares and Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule to resupply the International Space Station.
If the current schedule holds, Virginia-based Orbital would become the second commercial venture to send its spacecraft to the space station later this year, following in the footsteps of California-based SpaceX. The two companies have received more than hundred of millions of dollars in development funding from NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS.
SpaceX completed its COTS testing last year and has moved on to a series of 12 station resupply missions under the terms of a $1.6 billion contract. The second such mission, making use of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule, was successfully conducted last month.
This month's demonstration flight by the Antares will mark a major milestone in Orbital's COTS effort: Components of the rocket have been tested on the ground, but not yet in outer space. On Saturday, the two-stage rocket was rolled out from its integration facility at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and transported to Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a mile away. The Antares was then erected on the pad, where it will undergo a series of pre-launch tests.
Liftoff is scheduled for no earlier than April 17. The first flight won't go to the space station, but will merely test the rocket's ability to put a dummy payload in space. A demonstration flight of the Antares and Cygnus is slated to go to the space station later this year. If that unmanned demonstration mission is completed successfully, Orbital will begin conducting eight cargo resupply flights to the station in accordance with a $1.9 billion contract.
NASA selected SpaceX and Orbital to help fill the resupply gap left by the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. The station is also being resupplied by robotic Russian cargo capsules as well as European and Japanese transports. A separate NASA program is providing $1.1 billion in support to SpaceX, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. for the development of crew-capable spaceships.
More about Orbital and Antares:
For more pictures of Antares' rollout, check out the Wallops Flight Facility's Facebook page.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.