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New Spaceships, New Times

20 Sep 2013, 18:13 UTC
New Spaceships, New Times
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The end of the beginning of commercial spaceflight.

Orbital’s Antares rocket takes off on Wednesday from Wallops Island, Virginia, with the Cygnus cargo ship on top. (See the full-size photo here.)
Managers of NASA’s commercial cargo program must be feeling pretty good these days. They can’t fully relax until the Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft launched on Wednesday completes its first demo mission — delivering 1,500 pounds of cargo to the space station (arrival is scheduled for Sunday morning), remaining safely docked for a month, then disposing of a load of trash after it leaves.
But assuming that happens, it will mark the successful end of the beginning of commercial spaceflight. More than seven years ago, NASA kicked off a program to turn over the routine delivery of space station cargo to the private sector. The agency funded two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to develop the needed rockets and cargo ships. SpaceX already has its supply service up and running, and this week’s Cygnus mission is meant to show that Orbital can do it, too. If everything goes well, the company’s first paid delivery job will be in December.
The space agency’s willingness to incubate this new industry — even ...

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