WALLOPS ISLAND, VA
(AP) — On one of Virginia's small barrier islands, a NASA facility that operates in relative obscurity outside scientific circles is preparing to be thrust into the spotlight.
On Wednesday, Orbital Sciences Corp. plans to conduct the first test launch of its Antares rocket under a NASA program in which private companies deliver supplies to the International Space Station. If all goes as planned, the unmanned rocket's practice payload will be vaulted into orbit from Wallops Island before burning up in the atmosphere on its return to Earth several months later.
The goal of the launch isn't to connect with the space station, but to make sure the rocket works and that a simulated version of a cargo ship that will dock with space station on future launches separates into orbit. Orbital officials say that should occur about 10 minutes after liftoff.
In that short period of time, Wallops Island will transition from a little-known launch pad for small research rockets to a major player in the U.S. space program.
In fact, more than 16,000 rockets have been launched from Wallops Island since 1945, but none has drawn the attention of Antares. Most of the launches are suborbital and focus on educational and research programs.more