An unmanned commercial ship carrying cargo, small satellites and other hardware is on its way to the International Space Station.

Orbital Science Corp.’s first NASA-contracted cargo delivery flight to the orbiting laboratory began with the Thursday launch of the Cygnus spacecraft aboard the company’s Antares rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The launch, which was delayed for about a month while astronauts made urgent repairs to the station, came a day after NASA announced a four-year extension of the space station’s mission. 

The station will keep flying until at least 2024, which opens up new opportunities for NASA and the private companies working to send cargo, and eventually astronauts, into orbit. 

“The space station, if not actually, will virtually be our stepping stone to future exploration,” Orbital Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson said in a news conference after Thursday’s launch.

The space agency’s $1.9 billion contract with Orbital calls for eight cargo missions through 2016, but the station’s four-year extension makes it more likely that NASA will extend commercial contracts to support the orbiting laboratory, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a news conference.

That’s good news for Orbital, Culbertson said.

“I think it gives us a chance to be innovative and think of new investments we can make,” Culbertson said.

The company has also considered commercial applications for the Cygnus spacecraft and other projects beyond its contracted work with NASA, Culbertson said.

The Cygnus is scheduled to dock with the space station early Sunday, when astronauts will use the station’s giant robotic arm to lock the ship into place.

SpaceX, the Calif.-based company also contracting with NASA for cargo delivery missions, has its third resupply mission to the station scheduled for February.

Orbital has two more delivery flights set for 2014, one in May and one in October.

Contact reporter Alex Macon at 409-683-5244 or alex.macon@galvnews.com.

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