Orbital Sciences Corp. today successfully launched its "new" Antares rocket from the Wallops Island launch facility in Virginia, propelling a weight-simulated payload into orbit designed to mimic their ultimate intended payload: The unmanned Cygnus cargo capsule, that is contracted to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.  Antares is powered by a somewhat updated version of the NK-33 Soviet rocket engine designed in the 1960s, with a solid-fuel upper stage designed by Space Shuttle contractor ATK.  Given the strides being made by Orbital's competitor SpaceX and the totally unchallenged ambitiousness of the latter's plans, it's a little hard to get excited about this, but still...it's kinda, sorta cool, I guess.  It got into space!

Antares Rocket Test Launch

If my attitude seems dickish, let me explain: Orbital Sciences was started in the early 1980s with the stated intention of reducing launch costs through various innovative rocket programs, particularly the air-launched Pegasus rocket.  Their rockets worked, and they've also become involved in NASA space probe construction, building (for instance) the Dawn probe that recently explored asteroid Vesta and will be exploring Main Belt dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.  

This is very impressive compared to a company that makes, say, washing machines.  However, they totally failed in their objective to reduce launch costs, and instead became just another publicly-traded military/industrial/NASA contractor delivering great results at literally astronomical prices.  In other words, their existence has been kind of superfluous: They add no value over and above Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, et al.  They're just another name badge on ancient rocket technology from the dawn of the space program, and their innovations evolved in an atmosphere of cost-plus contracting where short-sightedness is financially rewarded.

So when they were given the other half of NASA's commercial cargo contracting program as a backup to SpaceX, they were the conservative choice - the company with a proven track record and proven technological heritage behind its rocket.  Which is why they're being paid substantially more than SpaceX for a far less capable system with very few prospects compared to Falcon 9 / Dragon.  Antares/Cygnus, for instance, has a considerably extended chain of outsourced suppliers and subcontractors including those already mentioned, while SpaceX is heavily vertically-integrated, so the technological feedback is much slower for Orbital's system, with a number of profit-maximizing points in between.  

Additionally, Antares wasn't designed to pursue reusability, and there is almost no possibility of that changing, while Falcon 9 was and has been evolving toward it, so Antares will remain a completely disposable rocket with all the associated high costs.  It comes nowhere near to the performance of even the current version of the Falcon 9, let alone the radically-advanced new version (the v.1.1) due to be launched this June.  Moreover, the Cygnus spacecraft can't deliver as much cargo as even the current Dragon, can't return to Earth like Dragon, can't return any payload to Earth like Dragon can, and isn't designed to evolve into a crew spacecraft like the new version of Dragon slated to be unveiled this year.  

Now, it is true that SpaceX has about a two-year head start on Orbital, but it's hard not to notice the fact that their most ambitious plans don't even amount to what SpaceX has already accomplished with far less money than Orbital has, let alone what it's going to be paid in the future for doing much less than SpaceX has already done.   So I'm having a bit of cognitive dissonance here trying my best to appreciate what they're doing and the fact that it would seem awesome if not for SpaceX, but damn it's hard.  I'm sure boiled cabbage tastes like brie on a baguette to a starving palate, but that abstract knowledge doesn't make it any more appealing when you're not starving.  So I'm going to coin a unit of space awesomeness to rate this achievement: I'm rating the launch at 200 milli-elons, and that mostly for the video:    

Your Email has been sent.