Commercial Space

NASA Targets ‘Return to Flight’ of Upgraded Antares for mid-October for Station Resupply

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer –

NASA is targeting mid-October for the ‘Return to Flight’ launch of the upgraded Orbital ATK Antares rocket on a cargo mission to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time in nearly two years.

The 14 story tall commercial Antares rocket will launch for the first time in the upgraded 230 configuration powered by new Russian-built first stage engines.

In light of the grounding of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo flights following the catastrophic Sept.1 launch pad disaster,and the catastrophic Antares launch failure in Oct. 2014, this Orbital ATK mission becomes more critical than ever to keep the space station stocked and fully operational for the resident crews with a reliable American supply train.

NASA and Orbital ATK announced that the re-engined Antares will launch during a five-day launch window that opens no earlier than October 9-13, 2016 on the OA-5 Cygnus cargo mission from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s picturesque Eastern shore.

“A more specific date will be identified upon completion of final operational milestones and technical reviews,” according to statements from NASA and Orbital ATK.

If Antares launches on Oct. 9, liftoff is set 10:47 p.m. EDT and becomes progressively earlier on succeeding days. The launch time moves up to 9:13 p.m. EDT on Oct. 13.

If the launch takes place during this window, it will mark the first truly nighttime launch for Antares from Virgina.

“The arrival and berthing of Cygnus to the International Space Station will be determined by the exact launch date and in coordination with other space station activities,” says NASA.

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, protected inside the vertical container shown here, was shipped from our payload processing facility on Wallops main base to our spacecraft fueling facility on Wallops Island earlier this week. Credit: NASA

The Cygnus cargo spacecraft was moved this week from the NASA Wallops payload processing facility to the spacecraft fueling facility on Wallops Island.

The next step is to integrate Cygnus onto the Orbital ATK Antares 230 rocket inside the HIF (Horizontal Integration Facility) in anticipation of the launch slated for no earlier than Oct. 9 at 10:47 p.m. EDT.

The Antares 230 medium-class commercial launch vehicle rocket has been upgraded with new first stage Russian-built RD-181 engines fueled by LOX/kerosene – that had to be fully validated before launching NASA’s precious cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

For the OA-5 mission, the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft will be loaded with approximately 2,400 kg (5,290 lbs.) of supplies and science experiments for the International Space Station (ISS).

Under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 28,700 kilograms of cargo to the space station. OA-5 is the sixth of these missions.

Orbital ATK’s Antares commercial rocket had to be overhauled with completely new first stage engines following the catastrophic launch failure nearly two years ago on October 28, 2018 just seconds after blastoff that doomed the Orb-3 resupply mission to the space station.

The goal of the Antares ‘Return to Flight’ mission is to launch Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter on the OA-5 resupply mission for NASA to the ISS and restore the Antares rocket to flight status.

To that end the aerospace firm completed a successful 30 second long test firing of the re-engined first stage on May 31 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Launch Pad 0A – as I reported here earlier.

First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Teams from Orbital ATK and NASA have been scrutinizing the data in great detail ever since then to ensure the rocket is really ready before committing to the high stakes launch.

“Orbital ATK completed a stage test at the end of May and final data review has confirmed the test was successful, clearing the way for the Antares return to flight,” said the company.

“Simultaneously, the company has been conducting final integration and check out of the flight vehicle that will launch the OA-5 mission to ensure that all technical, quality and safety standards are met or exceeded.”

The projected launch date has been delayed several times since the May 31 hot fire test to deal with ‘vibration’ issues detected during the test.

Antares launches had immediately ground to a halt following the devastating launch failure 23 months ago which destroyed the rocket and its critical payload of space station science and supplies for NASA in a huge fireball just seconds after blastoff – as witnessed by this author.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer –

As a direct consequence of the catastrophic launch disaster, Orbital ATK managers decided to outfit the Antares medium-class rocket with new first stage RD-181 engines built in Russia.

The launch mishap was traced to a failure in the AJ26 first stage engine turbopump and caused Antares launches to immediately grind to a halt.

Top Orbital ATK management soon decided to ditch the AJ26s, which were 40 year old refurbished engines, originally built during the Soviet era for their moon rocket and originally known as the NK-33.

Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer –

The RD-181 replaces the previously used AJ26 engines which failed moments after liftoff during the last launch on Oct. 28, 2014 resulting in a catastrophic loss of the rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter.

The RD-181 flight engines are built by Energomash in Russia and had to be successfully tested via the static hot fire test to ensure their readiness.

Aerial view of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket on launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Patrick J. Hendrickson /

Watch for Ken’s continuing Antares/Cygnus mission and launch reporting. He will be reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the launch campaign.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Aerial view of Orbital ATK launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Credit: Patrick J. Hendrickson /
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in May 2016. 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

The Giant Planets Migrated Between 60-100 Million Years After the Solar System Formed

Untangling what happened in our Solar System tens or hundreds of millions of years ago…

4 hours ago

Artemis Astronauts Will Deploy New Seismometers on the Moon

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Apollo astronauts set up a collection of lunar seismometers…

23 hours ago

Ice Deposits on Ceres Might Only Be a Few Thousand Years Old

The dwarf planet Ceres has some permanently dark craters that hold ice. Astronomers thought the…

24 hours ago

The Mystery of Cosmic Rays Deepens

Cosmic rays are high-energy particles accelerated to extreme velocities approaching the speed of light. It…

1 day ago

NASA Confirms that a Piece of its Battery Pack Smashed into a Florida Home

NASA is in the business of launching things into orbit. But what goes up must…

1 day ago

Are Titan's Dunes Made of Comet Dust?

A new theory suggests that Titan's majestic dune fields may have come from outer space.…

1 day ago