Now, for the first time, America has two, not just one, launch vehicles in operation for reaching the International Space Station.

The Antares rocket, built and operated by Orbital Science Corporation, lifted off from Wallops Island, Virginia on a test flight to orbit today. It carried a mass simulator to stand for the Cygnus spacecraft that will be added to a flight later this year. Everything went smoothly.

If all continues to go well, Cygnus will join the SpaceX dragon in supplying cargo to the station. SpaceX, which has already completed two cargo missions to Space Station on contract with NASA following successful test flights of its own, is working on adding crew capacity to the Dragon by 2015. Orbital has no plans to add crew capacity to Cygnus.

You can read more about the Antares and Cygnus in my story in January for Popular Mechanics.

Today’s successful mission is yet another affirmation that NASA’s policy of contracting out access to low Earth orbit while it concentrates on deep space missions is the right direction. Orbital, SpaceX, and up-and-comers like Sierra Nevada Corporation will be able to get the job done more affordably and with greater safety than the the retired Space Shuttles.

From NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver’s blog:

It was a thrill to be at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia today for the successful launch of the Antares rocket on its maiden voyage. Today’s test flight marks another important milestone in NASA’s plan for American companies to launch supplies to the International Space Station for fewer tax dollars, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs. I congratulate the Orbital and NASA teams that helped to make this achievement possible.