Doubly Historic Day for Private Space: Cygnus docks at Station & Next Gen Falcon 9 Soars

The Cygnus cargo spacecraft is just a few feet away from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 during rendezvous and berthing on Sept 29, 2013. Credit: NASA
Updated – See Falcon 9 launch video below[/caption]

Today (Sept. 29) was a doubly historic day for private spaceflight! And a boon to NASA as well!

Early this morning the Orbital Sciences Cygnus commercial cargo ship docked at the International Space Station (ISS) speeding along some 250 miles (400 km) overhead in low Earth orbit.

Barely a few hours later the Next Generation commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soared to space on a demonstration test flight from the California coast carrying a Canadian satellite to an elliptical earth orbit.

These missions involved the dramatic maiden flights for both Cygnus and the upgraded Falcon 9.

And both were high stakes endeavors, with literally billions of dollars and the future of commercial spaceflight, as well as the ISS, on the line. Their significance cannot be overstated!

Falcon 9 lifts off from SpaceX’s pad at Vandenberg on Sept 29, 2013, carrying Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Both Cygnus and Falcon 9 were developed with seed money from NASA in a pair of public-private partnerships between NASA and Orbital Sciences and SpaceX under NASA’s COTS commercial transportation initiative aimed at fostering the development of America’s private space industry to deliver critical and essential supplies to the ISS.

The powerful new Falcon 9 will also be used to send cargo to the ISS.

America completely lost its capability to send humans and cargo to the ISS when NASA’s space shuttles were retired in 2011. Orbital Sciences and SpaceX were awarded NASA contracts worth over $3 Billion to restore the unmanned cargo resupply capability over 20 flights totally.

The Cygnus spacecraft put on a spectacular space ballet – and was no worse for the wear after its docking was delayed a week due to an easily fixed communications glitch.

The Cygnus commercial resupply craft is installed by the Canadarm2 to the Harmony node.
Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus is a privately developed resupply vessel built by Orbital Sciences Corp and Thales Alenia Space that is a crucial railroad to orbit for keeping the massive orbital lab complex well stocked with everyday essentials and science experiments that are the purpose of the ISS.

Cygnus was grappled in free drift by Expedition 37 space station astronauts Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg at about 7 a.m. EDT Sunday morning.

The pair were working at two robotics work stations from inside the Cupola and Destiny modules. They used the stations 57 foot long Canadarm2 to snare Cygnus at a distance of about 30 feet (10 meters). They gradually motioned the arm closer.

Running a bit ahead of schedule they successfully berthed Cygnus at the earth facing port of the Harmony module by about 8:44 a.m. EDT.

Cygnus was launched to orbit on its inaugural flight on Sept. 18 atop Orbital’s commercial Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern shore of Virginia.

Sept. 22 had been the initially targeted station docking date for this demonstration mission.

Hatches to Cygnus will be opened on Monday, Sept. 30 after completing leak checks.

“Today, with the successful berthing of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo module to the ISS, we have expanded America’s capability for reliably transporting cargo to low-Earth orbit, “ said NASA Admisistrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

“It is an historic milestone as this second commercial partner’s demonstration mission reaches the ISS, and I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them to make it happen.”

“Orbital joins SpaceX in fulfilling the promise of American innovation to maintain America’s leadership in space. As commercial partners demonstrate their new systems for reaching the Station, we at NASA continue to focus on the technologies to reach an asteroid and Mars,” said Bolden.

Cygnus delivers about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasted off from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9 a.m. PDT (12 p.m. EDT).

Here’s a video of the launch:

It successfully deployed Canada’s 1,060 pound (481 kg) Cascade, Smallsat, and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) weather satellite and several additional small satellites.

This powerful new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of the new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines and can therefore boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS and beyond.

The next generation Falcon 9 is a monster. It’s much taller than a standard Falcon 9 – some 22 stories vs. 13.

It could launch from Cape Canaveral as early as this Fall.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about Cygnus, Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity, Mars rovers, MAVEN, Orion, LADEE and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer (
Antares and Cygnus streak to space and the ISS from NASA Wallops on Sept. 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Recent Posts

Don’t Bother Trying to Destroy Rubble Pile Asteroids

The asteroids in our Solar System are survivors. They've withstood billions of years of collisions.…

24 hours ago

Watch This 12-Year Timelapse of Exoplanets Orbiting Their Star

Back in 2008, astronomers made a big announcement: for the first time, they had taken…

1 day ago

Freezing Ocean Might Not Be Responsible for Cryovolcanic Flows on Pluto’s Moon, Charon

In a recent study scheduled to be published in the journal Icarus in March 2023,…

1 day ago

South Korea’s Danuri Mission Sends Home Pictures of the Earth and Moon

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) both ended 2022 and started 2023 on a very…

1 day ago

Soon We’ll Detect Extreme Objects Producing Gravitational Waves Continuously

The cosmic zoo contains objects so bizarre and extreme that they generate gravitational waves. Scorpius…

2 days ago

The Outer Solar System Supplied a Surprising Amount of Earth’s Water

In a recent study published in Science, a team of researchers at Imperial College London…

2 days ago