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Antares rocket's maiden launch aborted when data cable drops off

Steve Helber / AP

The Antares rocket is illuminated by lights on Tuesday night, waiting for launch from a Virginia spaceport.

Orbital Sciences Corp. postponed the maiden launch of its Antares rocket on Wednesday when an umbilical data cable was disconnected prematurely from the launch vehicle's second stage.

The launch abort came at about 4:48 p.m. ET, just minutes before the Antares was due to lift off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. Orbital said the 5 p.m. ET liftoff would be rescheduled for Friday at the earliest.

"We are still examining all of the data, but it appears that the issue is fairly straightforward," Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president and mission director for the Antares test flight, said in a company statement. "With this being the first launch of the new system from a new launch facility we have taken prudent steps to ensure a safe and successful outcome. Today, our scrub procedures were exercised and worked as planned.  We are looking forward to a successful launch on Friday."

Imagery posted to the independent NASASpaceFlight.com website showed a tower on the launch pad twisting in a motion that could have dislodged the data cord from its connector.

Orbital is giving the Antares rocket its first in-flight test in preparation for trips to the International Space Station later this year. This time around, the rocket is carrying merely a dummy payload, along with some secondary satellites that are to be deployed in orbit. But if the practice run is successful, Orbital could start providing a second line of made-in-the-USA commercial vehicles for resupplying the space station.

The Virginia-based company is following in the footsteps of California-based SpaceX, which began cargo runs to the space station last year.

Orbital and SpaceX have received hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA to develop their transports, as part of the space agency's strategy to replace the space shuttle fleet. The shuttles were retired in 2011 to make way for a new generation of spaceships capable of going beyond Earth orbit. NASA wants private companies to take over the role of getting cargo — and eventually astronauts as well — to low Earth orbit.

Orbital won NASA's contract for the Antares rocket and the Cygnus cargo capsule in 2008.

A simulated Cygnus payload is to be lofted into orbit during a 10-minute ascent, and is expected to remain in orbit for several weeks before plunging to its fiery doom in Earth's atmosphere. Four tiny satellites are to be deployed from the simulator, including three smartphone-equipped PhoneSats for NASA (Alexander, Graham, and Bell) and the commercial Dove-1 remote-sensing nanosatellite. The main point of the mission, however, is to check whether Antares is ready to send cargo to the space station.

"This is a big event for the Eastern Shore, for Wallops and for everybody in the surrounding area, but also, I think, for the country," Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's Advanced Program Group, said during Tuesday's pre-launch briefing.

He cautioned journalists not to expect a perfect test flight. "That first word is 'test,' so if things don't go exactly as planned, we will learn what we need to learn and press on," he said.

If the test is successful, another Antares is due to send a real Cygnus capsule to the space station as early as this June. And if that demonstration flight succeeds, Orbital could proceed with a series of eight resupply flights to the station under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. SpaceX is already two flights into its own 12-mission, $1.6 billion resupply contract.

Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight development, said Orbital would play an important role in providing "assured cargo access" to the space station. The idea is that if SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are grounded for technical reasons, Orbital's Antares and Cygnus would serve as a backup — and vice versa. That wasn't the case during the space shuttle program, when NASA's only Plan B was to rely on other countries' spaceships.

"We are in such a better situation today, and [it's] about to be even better with the debut of this new capability," McAlister said.

NASA is following a similar approach for the development of U.S.-made spaceships for crew transport. Three companies — SpaceX, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are splitting more than a billion dollars of NASA's money during the current phase of work. NASA expects commercial crew transports to start flying to the space station by 2017. 

Correction for 6:55 p.m. ET April 17: I've cleaned up a couple of errors, including the date when Orbital won NASA's nod in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (2008, not 2007) and the SpaceX contract amount under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services program ($1.6 billion, not $1.6 million).

More about the Antares rocket:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.