Antares rolls out

The Antares rocket is rolled out to the launchpad at NASA Wallops Flight Facility (NASA / October 5, 2012)

This week, the first stage of the biggest rocket ever to launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore rolled out onto its new $145 million launchpad …

.. and Virginia is one step closer to the sky-high ambitions of many in this state to become the Space Coast of the Atlantic.

If tests of the medium-size Antares rocket go well, it’ll join the small but growing fleet of commercial crafts enlisted in NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services mission to send payloads to the International Space Station.

NASA turned to the  private sector in part to replace the Space Shuttle program, which flew its last mission in July 2011.

The Antares and its Cygnus cargo spacecraft were designed and built by the Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corporation. The rocket still has to finesse a demonstration flight planned for later this year, but once cleared for duty is set to become a workhorse in the commercial space industry.

Orbital has been locked in a mini space race of sorts with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which on May 31 launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo craft with much fanfare from Cape Canaveral in Florida, becoming the first commercial vehicle ever to dock with the ISS.

SpaceX is gaining a second march on Orbital with a second  launch scheduled for Oct. 7.

Orbital is working under a $1.9 billion contract from NASA for 10 resupply missions. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract.

The achievements of these two companies signal a “significant milestone in our effort to return space station resupply activities to the United States,” said NASA spokesman David Weaver.