It's an exciting time to be a rocket scientist. The private space race is heating up, and the next competitor ready is Orbital Sciences. The venerable rocket and missile company has just moved its latest rocket, the Antares, to the launchpad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. A successful launch on April 17th will propel the company towards a role delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
The second company to receive a contract from NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS, Orbital is playing catch-up to SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rocket has already made three trips to the space station. Unlike its competitor, however, Orbital has a history of launching satellites into Earth orbit. Also unlike SpaceX, the company isn't currently interested in designing its equipment to carry humans. Instead, the company will focus on developing reliable launch systems for satellites and other cargo.
The retirement of the space shuttles has forced NASA to seek outside help in maintaining operations in space. Crews to the ISS are carried by the Russian Soyuz capsule, while cargo is delivered by the Russian Progress spacecraft and SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Three main companies, Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada, are competing to provide the United States with the capability to once again launch humans into space. Together, the companies have split about $1.5 billion is funding from the space agency. All three appear to be on track to demonstrate their capabilities by the end of the decade.
Although these projects may lack some of the patriotic undertones of past space advances, the expansion of space travel to private companies can only accelerate our journey to space. Just like vibrant competition has spurred a remarkable acceleration of computer technology, this government-supported space race will ultimately extend our space capabilities and expand our access to Earth orbit and beyond.
Source: Spaceflight Now