WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Orbital Sciences Corp. launched its Cygnus cargo capsule toward the international space station (ISS) aboard the Antares rocket Sept. 18, marking the start of a demonstration delivery mission that, if successful, will clear the way for the Dulles, Va., company to start flying off a $1.9 billion NASA contract.

In its maiden flight, Cygnus separated cleanly from the second stage of Antares — which has now flown twice, counting a demo launch in April — at about 11:08 a.m. EDT, 10 minutes after liftoff from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a state-operated facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility here.

Scheduled at press time for a Sept. 22 rendezvous with ISS, Cygnus is scheduled to spend 30 days at the orbital outpost. When its mission is over, the expendable craft will detach from the station, re-enter the atmosphere and burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Should Orbital complete the demonstration mission successfully, it will be clear to begin the eight cargo delivery flights it needs to complete to collect the rest of the revenue due to it under the Commercial Resupply Services contract it signed with NASA in 2008. Some $622 million of that was on Orbital’s books as of October 2012, according to a June 13 report from the NASA inspector general. Orbital cannot collect all of its fees from NASA until it completes its eight delivery-and-disposal missions. 

In addition, a successful Cygnus debut will mean NASA will have realized a goal it set for itself in 2006, when it began distributing seed money for commercially operated systems to replace the space shuttle’s cargo-carrying capacity.

Following competition for bigger contracts, Orbital and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) eventually emerged as NASA’s candidates for the job. SpaceX, after completing its own demonstration cargo run in 2012, has now flown two contract cargo runs to ISS under its 12-flight, $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services Contract.

NASA will need another cargo run sometime around December or January, and while it is not certain whether the agency will call on SpaceX or Orbital, NASA’s Michael Suffredini, manager of the ISS program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a prelaunch press conference this month that Orbital is the likelier candidate — SpaceX, busy preparing for the debut of its new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, may not be ready to fly another cargo mission from Florida in time, Suffredini said. 

Orbital could be ready to fly again in December, said Frank Culbertson, the former astronaut now leading the company’s Advanced Programs Group. “Between Dec. 8 and Dec. 21 is our target, and we’ll deliver almost 1,300 kilograms at that time,” he said. “We’ll be ready to go.”

However, Culbertson said Orbital was still waiting on a green light from NASA to begin formal preparations for that mission. Culbertson added that Orbital has the better part of two rockets’ worth of hardware awaiting integration nearby the pad at Wallops. 

There is only a single Antares upper stage at Wallops because “we don’t like to store the solids here unless we need to,” Culbertson said after the press briefing. 

Also to be resolved is the status of NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program after 2016, the year Orbital and SpaceX’s delivery contracts expire. The agency has not yet announced when it might solicit bids for follow-on deliveries, but ISS will be operational until at least 2020, and NASA wants to fly even longer.

Still, the agency has not said when, or how, it would buy additional cargo deliveries. However, NASA appeared to leave itself room to meet some — if not all— of its cargo needs via the Commercial Crew Program it is putting together to resume astronaut launches from U.S. soil in the post-shuttle era.

In a draft request for proposals NASA put together for Commercial Crew, the agency said it wanted to order astronaut taxi flights via task orders, which might also be used to book space for cargo.

Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, said at a post-launch press briefing on Sept. 18 that NASA was “right now getting ready to take our next steps toward awarding the follow-on [cargo delivery] contracts.” He declined to be more specific. 

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...