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Orbital aiming for 2012 demonstration flight to the space station

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
May 2, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—As SpaceX prepares to demonstrate its ability to deliver cargo to the space station, another U.S. company is preparing to show NASA what it can do. 

Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital, NYSE: ORB), like SpaceX, is working with NASA under the space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program whereby NASA plans to use the services of commercial companies to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. 

Before Orbital can start delivering cargo to the space station for real it must prove it is a safe and reliable transport system, which means it will have to pass phase 1 of COTS, development and demonstration. 

Orbital's product consists of the Antares launch rocket, the Cygnus spacecraft and pressurized cargo modules.

Orbital is planning its first COTS test flight in the third quarter of 2012, followed by a demonstration flight to the ISS in the final quarter of 2012.

In December 2008 NASA awarded COTS commercial resupply contracts to both SpaceX and Orbital. Orbital's contract provides for it to make up to 8 supply missions to the ISS up to 2015. Provided the demonstration flights meet with NASA's approval, Orbital anticipates making its first cargo supply in 2013.

The Antares launch vehicle can carry approximately 6 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, while the Cygnus spacecraft will be capable of delivering 2.7 tonnes of pressurized cargo to the space station.

NASA's COTS program is part of its strategy of using private companies to deliver cargo and astronauts to low-Earth orbit, in particular the International Space Station. COTS was created in 2006 and SpaceX was selected as its first partner under the program. Another company, Rocketplane-Kistler (RpK), was also selected in 2006 but the agreement with RpK was later terminated after it failed to complete financial and technical milestones. A second competition was held to select a new funded commercial partner which resulted in the selection of Orbital in February 2008.

The COTS projects are managed by NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO). C3PO has the goal of creating a successful commercial space industry in the U.S. capable of providing safe, reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit.

According to NASA, COTS is "helping spur the innovation and development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles from commercial industry, creating a new way of delivering cargo to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station."

If successful, Orbital and SpaceX will add to the existing range of cargo ships that regularly supply the ISS, including Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Japan's HTV and Russia's Progress supply ship.