Reborn Antares Raised at Virginia Launch Pad for Crucial May 31 Engine Test

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/kenkremer.com
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 upcoming May 31 engine test. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – The soon to be reborn Orbital ATK Antares commercial rocket sporting new first stage engines has been raised at its repaired launch pad on Virginia’s scenic eastern shore for a long awaited test firing of the powerplants. The static test firing is now slated to take place in less than 3 days on Tuesday evening, May 31.

The now revamped launch vehicle – dubbed Antares 230 – has been ‘re-engined’ and upgraded with a pair of modern and more powerful first stage engines – the Russian-built RD-181 fueled by LOX/kerosene.

The engine test will be conducted using only the first stage of Antares at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

The raised rocket with the first stage capped at the top is visible right now at the Wallops pad – as seen in my new photos taken this week.

NASA announced that the static test firing is slated for no earlier than May 31 during a test window that runs from 5 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. EDT. As a contingency, the Wallops range has been reserved for backup test dates that run through June 5 just in case issues crop up.

NASA will not be carrying a live webcast of the test. Rather they will note the completion of the test on the Wallops’ Facebook and Twitter sites.

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The test firing will be visible from various public viewing locations in the local Wallops area. However the NASA Wallops Visitor center will not be open.

NASA will not be carrying a live webcast of the test. Rather they will note the completion of the test on the Wallops’ Facebook and Twitter sites.

Bird takes flight over Orbital ATK Antares set to sail skyward again in summer 2016 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Bird takes flight over Orbital ATK Antares set to sail skyward again in summer 2016 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The test firing will be visible from various public viewing locations in the local Wallops area. However the NASA Wallops Visitor center will not be open.

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The test involves firing up Antares dual first stage RD-181 engines at full 100% power (thrust) for a scheduled duration of approximately 30 seconds. Hold down restraints will keep the rocket firmly anchored at the pad during the test.

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 March 2016.  New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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. New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To prepare for the static hot fire test, Orbital ATK technicians rolled the vehicle on a dedicated multi-wheeled transporter erector launcher from the rockets processing hangar inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A about a mile away.

A successful outcome is absolutely crucial for permitting Antares to carry out its ‘Return to Flight’ launch dubbed OA-5 and set for sometime this summer.

“The hot fire will demonstrate the readiness of the rocket’s first stage and the launch pad fueling systems to support upcoming flights,” said NASA officials.

Antares launches ground to a halt following a devastating launch failure 19 months ago which destroyed the rocket and its payload of space station science and supplies for NASA in a huge fireball.

The ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff – which could come as soon as July 2016 – will be the first for the private Antares rocket since that catastrophic launch failure on Oct. 28, 2014, just seconds after liftoff from Wallops. That flight was carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter on the critical Orb-3 resupply mission for NASA and the astronauts living and working on the International Space Station (ISS).

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.

The RD-181 replaces the AJ26. The flight engines are built by Energomash in Russia.

“They are a good drop in replacement for the AJ26. And they offer 13% higher thrust compared to the AJ26,” said Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK Antares deputy program manager, in an interview with Universe Today.

As a result of switching to the new RD-181 engines, the first stage also had to be modified to incorporate new thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines between the engines and core stage structure.

“This stage test paradigm is a design verification test,” said Eberly.

“After the 30 second test is done we will shut it down and have a pile of data to look at,” Eberly told Universe Today.

“Hopefully it will confirm all our environments and all our models and give us the confidence so we can proceed with the return to flight.”

Technicians have been processing the rocket at the pad to ready it for the test. They also conducted a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and loaded the propellants like during an actual launch campaign.

The full up engine test follows the WDR.

“After the WDR we will do the stage test,” Eberly explained.

“It is a 30 second test. We will fire up both engines and hit all 3 power levels that we plan to use in flight.”

“We will use the thrust vector controls. So we will move the nozzles and sweep them through sinusoidal sweeps at different frequencies and excite various resonances and look for any adverse interaction between fluid modes and structural modes.”

The test uses the first stage core planned to launch the OA-7 mission from Wallops late this year.

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 March 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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/kenkremer.com

After the engine test is completed, the stage will be rolled back to the HIF and a new stage fully integrated with the Cygnus cargo freighter will be rolled out to the pad for the OA-5 ‘Return to Flight’ mission as soon as July.

“Orbital ATK is building, testing and flying the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. NASA initiatives like the cargo resupply contracts are helping develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit,” according to NASA.

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

Ken Kremer

Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS.  Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS. Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Streaks Galore as Cygnus Soars Chasing Station for Science; Photos, Videos

Long exposure streak shot of blastoff of United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016, with foreground view of world famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Atlas V lifted off from nearby Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now
Long exposure streak shot of blastoff of United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016, with foreground view of world famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atlas V lifted off from nearby Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Tuesday evening, March 22, turned into ‘streaks galore’ on Florida’s space coast, as the nighttime launch of an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter atop an Atlas V rocket was captured in unforgettable fashion by talented space photographers as it chases down the International Space Station (ISS), loaded with hundreds of science experiments.

Check out this expanding gallery of breathtaking photos and videos collected from many of my photojournalist friends and colleagues – who collectively count as the best space photographers worldwide!

We all descended on the sunshine state to record the Tuesday’s blastoff of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus CRS-6 (OA-6) spacecraft from an array of locations ringing Cape Canaveral’s seaside launch pad as well as remote cameras we all set as media directly at the launch pad.

The two stage ULA Atlas V lifted off right on time at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, into a picturesque moonlit sky on a resupply mission to the ISS.

ULA Atlas V rockets to orbits with Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 in this long exposure streak shot taken from the roof of the world famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Liftoff from nearby Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida occurred at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 . Credit: Julian Leek
ULA Atlas V rockets to orbits with Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 in this long exposure streak shot taken from the roof of the world famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Liftoff from nearby Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida occurred at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

One could not have asked for better weather. Conditions were near perfect at launch time with virtually no winds and clouds.

Cygnus rode to orbit on a fountain of fire. And right now she is in hot pursuit of the million pound orbiting outpost crewed by an international team of six astronauts and cosmonauts.

The streak shots vividly show how the rocket magnificently illuminated the scattered thin clouds hovering over the seaside launch pad as it ascended and arced over eastwards towards Africa.

Streak shot shows United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft soaring over Space Launch Complex- 37 housing upcoming Delta IV Heavy rocket after lift off from nearby Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The Cygnus is on a resupply mission to the International Space Station and scheduled to arrive at the orbiting laboratory Saturday, March 26.  Credit: United Launch Alliance/Ben Cooper
Streak shot shows United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft soaring over Space Launch Complex- 37 housing upcoming Delta IV Heavy rocket after lift off from nearby Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The Cygnus is on a resupply mission to the International Space Station and scheduled to arrive at the orbiting laboratory Saturday, March 26. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 (OA-6) mission launched aboard an Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) in the 401 configuration vehicle. This includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in its longest, extra extended configuration to accommodate the Cygnus.

The first stage of the Atlas V booster is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

It was the ULA’s 62nd straight success with the Atlas V as well as the firms third launch in 2016 and the 106th launch since the company formed in 2006.

Gorgeous launch of ULA Atlas V with Cygnus OA-6 mission in this streak shot taken over Cocoa Beach on March 22, 2016! Weather couldn't have cooperated better!  Credit: Talia Landman/AmericaSpace
Gorgeous launch of ULA Atlas V with Cygnus OA-6 mission in this streak shot taken over Cocoa Beach on March 22, 2016! Weather couldn’t have cooperated better! Credit: Talia Landman/AmericaSpace

The Cygnus CRS-6 (OA-6) mission is being launched under terms of the firm’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. It also counts as Orbital ATK’s fifth cargo delivery mission to the space station.

Watch these launch videos from remote video cameras set right at the launch pad showing the full fury of liftoff sounding off with the deafening thunder of some one million pounds of liftoff thrust.

Video caption: Flame trench view of the Orbital/ATK OA-6 resupply module launch to the ISS on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket from Pad 41 of the CCAFS on March 22, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Video caption: Mobius video camera placed at Florida launch pad captures blastoff up close of Orbital ATK OA-6 (CRS-6) mission riding to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016 at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

OA-6 is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Among the research highlights are experiments like Strata-1 which will evaluate how soil on airless bodies like asteroids moves about in microgravity, Gecko Gripper to test adhesives similar those found on geckos’ feet, Meteor will evaluate the chemical composition of meteors entering the Earth’s atmosphere, Saffire will purposely set a large fire inside Cygnus after it unberths from the ISS to examine how fires spread in space, and a nanosat deployer mounted externally will deploy over two dozen nanosats also after unberthing.

A new 3D printer featuring significantly upgraded capabilities is also on board.

Atlas V Cygnus OA-6 streak shot on March 22, 2016. 246 second exposure from Satellite Beach.  Credit: John Kraus
Atlas V Cygnus OA-6 streak shot on March 22, 2016. 246 second exposure from Satellite Beach. Credit: John Kraus

The spacecraft will arrive at the station on Saturday, March 26, at which time Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra of NASA and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) will grapple Cygnus, using the space station’s robotic arm, at approximately 6:40 a.m.

NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and grapple will begin at 5:30 a.m.

The Cygnus has been named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

This ‘Frankenstein’ liftoff image is the result of a 160+ image time lapse sequence compiled from Atlas V rocket launch carrying the OA-6 ISS resupply #Cygnus capsule,  showing streak shot and star trails as captured at the NASA causeway at KSC/CCAFS. Launched by United Launch Alliance for Orbital ATK on March 22, 2016 at 11:05 p.m. EDT.  Credit: Mike Seeley
This ‘Frankenstein’ liftoff image is the result of a 160+ image time lapse sequence compiled from Atlas V rocket launch carrying the OA-6 ISS resupply #Cygnus capsule, showing streak shot and star trails as captured at the NASA causeway at KSC/CCAFS. Launched by United Launch Alliance for Orbital ATK on March 22, 2016 at 11:05 p.m. EDT. Credit: Michael Seeley
ULA Atlas V carrying Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 streaks skyward on March 22, 2016. Credit:  Ben Smegelsky
ULA Atlas V carrying Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 streaks skyward on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ben Smegelsky
 ULA Atlas V/Cygnus OA-6 intermittent streak shot following launch on March 22, 2016 is taken from roof of Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ULA Atlas V/Cygnus OA-6 intermittent streak shot following launch on March 22, 2016 is taken from roof of Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Photographers on the VAB roof at KSC, preparing for Atlas V/Cygnus launch on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Jared Haworth
Photographers on the VAB roof at KSC, preparing for Atlas V/Cygnus launch on March 22, 2016. Credit: Jared Haworth
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stunning Nighttime Cygnus Freighter Rockets to ISS Stocked with Science Mesmerizing Spectators

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A stunningly beautiful nighttime launch mesmerized delighted spectators as it roared off a Florida space coast launch pad late Tuesday night, March 22, on a mission for NASA stocked with over three tons of science and supplies bound for the multinational crews working aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocketed raced to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, carrying an enlarged Cygnus commercial resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the ISS.

The venerable Atlas V lifted off right on target at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 into a picturesque moonlit sky that magnificently illuminated the scattered thin clouds hovering over the seaside launch pad for the hordes of excited folks and families lining the beaches and lucky to witness what may be history’s last launch of a Cygnus from Florida.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Future liftoffs of the private Orbital ATK Cygnus supply truck designed to stock the station will return to their original launch site on Virginia’s eastern shore starting with the next mission for their NASA customer sometime this summer.

Cygnus launches to the ISS normally start from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

But a catastrophic failure of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket moments after liftoff on Oct. 28, 2014, forced Orbital to seek and book an alternative launch vehicle while the company redesigned and reengined Antares first stage with new powerful powerplants for the ride to orbit.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus spacecraft will arrive at the station on Saturday, March 26, at which time Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra of NASA and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) will grapple Cygnus, using the space station’s robotic arm, at approximately 6:40 a.m. NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and grapple will begin at 5:30 a.m.

The commercial Cygnus cargo freighter was built by Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, Virginia.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus has been named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

This flight is also known as OA-6 and is being launched under terms of the firm’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. It also counts as Orbital ATK’s fifth cargo delivery mission to the space station.

OA-6 is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

About a quarter of the cargo is devoted to science and research gear. The cargo includes 3279 kg of science investigations, 1139 kg of crew supplies, 1108 kg of vehicle hardware, 157 kg of spacewalk equipment, and 98 kg of computer resources.
Here a NASA description of a few of the scientific highlights:

– Gecko Gripper, testing a mechanism similar to the tiny hairs on geckos’ feet that lets them stick to surfaces using an adhesive that doesn’t wear off,

– Strata-1, designed to evaluate how soil on small, airless bodies such as asteroids behaves in microgravity.

– Meteor, an instrument to evaluate from space the chemical composition of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere. The instrument is being re-flown following its loss on earlier supply missions.

– Saffire, which will set a large fire inside the Cygnus in an unprecedented study to see how large fires behave in space. The research is vital to selecting systems and designing procedures future crews of long-duration missions can use for fighting fires.

– Cygnus is carrying more than two dozen nanosatellites that will be ejected from either the spacecraft or the station at various times during the mission to evaluate a range of technology and science including Earth observations.

Here a cool video prelaunch look at Cygnus and me in the NASA Kennedy Space Center clean room discussing the Meteor experiment:

Video Credit: Thaddeus Cesari/VideoShampoo.com

When the ISS Expedition 47 crew members open the hatch, they will be greeted with a sign noting the spacecraft was named ‘SS Rick Husband’ in honor of the STS-107 mission commander.

Cygnus will spend approximately two months docked at the ISS.

OA-6 is only the second Cygnus to be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, following the OA-4 mission last December.

The CRS-6/OA-6 flight is also the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus variant, that is over 1 meter longer and sports 50% more volume capability.

Thus it is capable of carrying a much heavier payload of some 3500 kg (7700 lbs) vs. a maximum of 2300 kg (5070 lbs) for the standard version.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, ULA Atlas rocket, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 21-23: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evening Mar 21 /late afternoon Mar 22/23

The Orbital ATK CRS-6 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK CRS-6 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Next Cygnus Cargo Freighter Named in Honor of Columbia’s Last Commander Rick Husband

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The next Cygnus cargo resupply ship targeted to blastoff for the International Space Station (ISS) on March 22, has been named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

The ‘S.S. Rick Husband’ was announced as the Cygnus delivery vessels name by former astronaut Dan Tani, now senior director of Missions and Cargo Operations for Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia, during a media briefing in the clean room processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Rick was a very accomplished astronaut, and a devoted husband and father,” said Tani.

The commercial Cygnus cargo freighter was built by Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, Virginia.

Christened the S.S. Rick Husband, the spacecraft is a tribute to NASA astronaut Col. Rick Husband, of U.S. Air Force, who served as commander of Columbia’s STS-107 mission. The mission and all aboard were lost as Columbia disintegrated due to the effects of reentry heating into the Earth’s atmosphere high over Texas.

NASA astronaut Col. Rick Husband, of U.S. Air Force, who served as commander of Columbia’s STS-107 mission.  The Cygnus OA-6 cargo spacecraft is named the SS Rick Husband  in tribute to Rick Husband.  Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Col. Rick Husband, of U.S. Air Force, who served as commander of Columbia’s STS-107 mission. The Cygnus OA-6 cargo spacecraft is named the SS Rick Husband in tribute to Rick Husband. Credit: NASA

“We are proud to unveil the name of our #OA6 #Cygnus spacecraft—the S.S. Rick Husband, in honor of the late astronaut,” added Orbital ATK in a statement.

This flight is known as OA-6 and is being launched as under terms of the firm’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. It also counts as the Orbital ATK’s fifth cargo delivery mission to the space station.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Final processing of the cargo ship was completed as bunny suited media including myself observed technicians putting the finishing touches on the vehicle inside Kennedy’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF). Technicians had already finished fueling the vehicle with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

Liftoff of the commercial resupply services mission to the orbiting outpost is now targeted for Tuesday, March 22, during a 30-minute launch window that opens at 11:05 p.m. EDT.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, also known as Commercial Resupply Services-6 (CRS-6), will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from the seaside Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.

OA-6 is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

When the ISS Expedition 47 crew members open the hatch, they will be greeted with a sign noting the spacecraft was named ‘SS Rick Husband’ in honor of the STS-107 mission commander.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Overall, Orbital will deliver approximately 28,700 kilograms of cargo to the ISS under the life of the CRS contract, which extends to 2018.

STS-107 was Husband’s second flight to space.

OA-6 is the first Cygnus to named after an astronaut who actually participated in building the ISS – during his first flight as shuttle pilot on the STS-96 mission in 1999.

The prior Cygnus cargo spacecraft was named the S.S. Deke Slayton during the OA-4 mission. OA-4 successfully launched to the ISS in December 2015 – read my on site articles here.

Orbital ATK has named each Cygnus after a deceased NASA astronaut, several of whom later worked for the company.

OA-6 is only the second Cygnus to be launch atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, following the OA-4 mission last December.

The CRS-6/OA-6 flight is also the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus variant, that is over 1 meter longer and sports 50% more volume capability.

Thus it is capable of carrying a much heavier payload of some 3500 kg (7700 lbs) vs. a maximum of 2300 kg (5070 lbs) for the standard version.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, ULA Atlas rocket, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 21/22: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evening Mar 21 /late afternoon Mar 22

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Commercial Cygnus Cargo Freighter Departs ISS After Resuming US Resupply Runs

Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

A commercial Cygnus cargo freighter departed the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Feb. 19) after successfully resuming America’s train of resupply runs absolutely essential to the continued productive functioning of the orbiting science outpost.

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra commanded the release of the privately developed Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus resupply ship from the snares of the stations Canadian-built robotic arm at 7:26 a.m. EST – while the space station was flying approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Bolivia.

“Honor to give #Cygnus a hand (or arm) in finalizing its mission this morning. Well done #SSDekeSlayton!” Kelly quickly posted to his social media accounts.

The Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus craft had arrived at the station with several tons of supplies on Dec. 9, 2015 after blazing to orbit on Dec. 6 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the company’s fourth NASA-contracted commercial station resupply mission dubbed CRS-4.

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

To prepare for today’s release, ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center first used the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6- meter-long) robotic arm, Canadarm2, to unberth Cygnus from its place on the stations Earth-facing port of the Unity module at about 5:38 a.m.

Cygnus came loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments as well as Christmas presents for the astronauts and cosmonauts living and working on the massive orbital lab complex during Expeditions 45 and 46.

Today’s activities were carried live on NASA TV. This brief NASA video shows a few highlights from Cygnus departure:

Altogether, Cygnus spent approximately 72 days attached to the station. During that time the crews unloaded all the research gear for experiments in areas such as biology, biotechnology, and physical and Earth science.

“All good things must come to an end. #Cygnus, your mission was a success! Farewell #SSDekeSlayton,” said Kelly.

Mission controllers at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, VA space operations facility soon commanded Cygnus to fire its thrusters to gradually maneuver away from the station.

The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA TV

Before departure, the crew had loaded Cygnus back up with about 3000 pounds of trash for disposal.

On Saturday, after the spacecraft is far away from the station, controllers will fire the engines twice to pushing the vehicle into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery reentry where it will harmlessly burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, Kelly himself will also be departing the ISS in about ten days when his historic ‘1 Year ISS Mission’ concludes on March 1, when he returns to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule along with his cosmonaut crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov.

December’s arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 cargo freighter – also known as OA-4 – represented the successful restart of American’s critically needed cargo missions to the ISS following a pair of launch failures by both of NASA’s cargo providers – Orbital ATK and SpaceX – over the past year and a half. It was the first successful US cargo delivery mission in some 8 months.

Cygnus was named the ‘SS Deke Slayton II’ in memory of Deke Slayton, one of the America’s original seven Mercury astronauts. He was a member of the Apollo Soyuz Test Flight. Slayton was also a champion of America’s commercial space program.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-4 counts as the first flight of Cygnus on an Atlas and the first launch to the ISS using an Atlas booster.

This is also the first flight of the enhanced, longer Cygnus, measuring 5.1 meters (20.5 feet) tall and 3.05 meters (10 feet) in diameter, sporting a payload volume of 27 cubic meters.

“The enhanced Cygnus PCM is 1.2 meters longer, so it’s about 1/3 longer,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems Programs, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

This Cygnus also carried its heaviest payload to date since its significantly more voluminous than the original shorter version.

“It can carry about 50% more payload,” DeMauro told me.

“This Cygnus will carry more payload than all three prior vehicles combined,” former NASA astronaut Dan Tani elaborated.

The total payload packed on board amounted to 3513 kilograms (7745 pounds), including science investigations, crew supplies, vehicle hardware, spacewalk equipment and computer resources.

Among the contents are science equipment totaling 846 kg (1867 lbs.), crew supplies of 1181 kg (2607 lbs.), and spacewalk equipment of 227 kg (500 lbs.).

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK holds a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA worth $1.9 Billion to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

Orbital ATK has contracted a second Cygnus to fly on an Atlas on the OA-6 mission, currently slated for liftoff around March 22, 2016. Liftoff was delayed about two weeks to decontaminate an infestation of mold found in cargo already packed on the Cygnus.

NASA has also contracted with Orbital ATK to fly three additional missions through 2018. Orbital also recently was awarded six additional cargo missions by NASA as part of the CRS-2 procurement.

Orbital ATK hopes to resume Cygnus cargo launches with their own re-engined Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia this summer.

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

Ken Kremer

Orbital ATK Integration of Upgraded Antares Kicks Into High Gear For 2016 ‘Return to Flight’

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Assembly and testing of a significantly upgraded version of Orbital ATK’s commercially developed Antares rocket has kicked into high gear and is on target for rebirth – as the clock ticks down towards its ‘Return to Flight’ by approximately mid-2016 from a launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia, company managers told Universe Today during a recent up close media visit to see the actual flight hardware.

Mission integration operations are in full swing right now as technicians were actively processing Antares hardware in order to resume launches of critical cargo missions to crews living aboard the space station, during my visit to Orbital ATK’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in mid-December. Continue reading “Orbital ATK Integration of Upgraded Antares Kicks Into High Gear For 2016 ‘Return to Flight’”

Cygnus Docks at Station for Christmas Delivery to Successfully Resume American Resupply Chain

@OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus spacecraft is moving toward its capture point at the International Space Station as astronaut maneuver the Canadian-built robotic arm to  reach out for dramatic vehicle grappling on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: NASA TV
@OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus spacecraft is moving toward its capture point at the International Space Station as astronauts maneuver the Canadian-built robotic arm to reach out for dramatic vehicle grappling on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: NASA TV
Story/photos updated

The commercial Cygnus cargo spaceship, loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments, successfully rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Dec. 9) after blazing to orbit on Sunday, Dec. 6, and thereby successfully resumed the American resupply chain to orbit – just in time for Christmas in Space!

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 resupply vessel arrived in the vicinity of the massive orbiting outpost around 530 a.m. EST today with pinpoint accuracy after precisely firing its maneuvering thrusters to home in on the complex during a two day orbital chase.

After moving close in to Continue reading “Cygnus Docks at Station for Christmas Delivery to Successfully Resume American Resupply Chain”

Critical Cygnus Return to Flight Mission via Atlas V Set to Restore US Cargo Launches to ISS – Watch Live

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft poised for blastoff  to ISS on  ULA Atlas V on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 spacecraft poised for blastoff to ISS on ULA Atlas V on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In the shadow of the spanking new commercial crew access tower that our astronauts will soon ascend to restore America’s human access to space, the first ever Atlas V rocket that will launch a commercial Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) is poised for blastoff on Thursday, December 3, from the Florida Space Coast and resume the train of critically needed American cargo launches to the orbiting science laboratory.

The stakes are high for NASA and the ISS partners following a string of three cargo mission mishaps over the past year resulting from a trio of launch failures by both US and Russian rocket providers involving Orbital ATK, SpaceX and Roscosmos.

The ISS and her six person crew cannot Continue reading “Critical Cygnus Return to Flight Mission via Atlas V Set to Restore US Cargo Launches to ISS – Watch Live”

Cygnus Freighter Fueled and Loaded to Resume American Cargo Launches to Space Station

First enhanced Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial cargo ship is fully assembled and being processed for blastoff  to the ISS on Dec. 3, 2015 on an ULA Atlas V rocket. This view shows the Cygnus, named the SS Deke Slayton II, and twin payload enclosure fairings inside the Kennedy Space Center clean room.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First enhanced Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial cargo ship is fully assembled and being processed for blastoff to the ISS on Dec. 3, 2015 on a ULA Atlas V rocket. This view shows the Cygnus, named the SS Deke Slayton II, and twin payload enclosure fairings inside the Kennedy Space Center clean room. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The largest and most advanced version of the privately developed Cygnus cargo freighter ever built by Orbital ATK is fueled, loaded and ready to go to orbit – signifying a critical turning point towards resuming American commercial cargo launches to the space station for NASA that are critical to keep it functioning.

The enhanced and fully assembled commercial Cygnus was unveiled to the media, including Universe Today, during an exclusive tour inside the clean room facility on Friday, Nov. 13, where it is undergoing final prelaunch processing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Blastoff of Cygnus atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the OA-4 resupply mission under contract to NASA is anticipated on Continue reading “Cygnus Freighter Fueled and Loaded to Resume American Cargo Launches to Space Station”

NASA Again Postpones Space Station Commercial Cargo Contract Awards, Boeing Out

Will NASA renew SpaceX and Orbital ATK as the favored contractors for the commercial cargo flights absolutely essential to keeping the International Space Station (ISS) amply stocked with science experiments and supplies through 2024 for the multinational crews now celebrating 15 years of continuous human occupation?

Or will a trio of other American aerospace competitors vying for the new government contracts somehow break through? That’s the multi Billion dollar question since the cargo awards are potentially valued at 3 to 4 Billion dollars or more each.

Well despite widespread expectations that the winners of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 contract for the orbiting outpost would be announced by week’s end, nearly everyone involved will have to wait a few more months while agency officials again postponed a decision in order to ponder the long term implications of “a complex procurement.”

NASA says it needs more time to “assess proposals” and determine which of five private companies will be awarded the governments CRS 2 contracts for the ISS resupply missions.

Although NASA had planned to award contracts to at least two winners on Thursday, Nov. 5, the agency just announced another significant delay for the CRS 2 contract via its procurement website because the decision is “complex.”

“The anticipated CRS2 award is now no later than January 30, 2016 to allow additional time for the Government to assess proposals,” NASA announced on its procurement website.

“CRS2 is a complex procurement.

This new delay follows several earlier postponements already announced this past year.

The two companies currently holding Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts from NASA, namely SpaceX and Orbital ATK, are dueling with new bids from Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX Dragon berthing at ISS on March 3, 2013.  Credit: NASA
SpaceX Dragon berthing at ISS on March 3, 2013. Credit: NASA

Altogether, those five companies are known to have submitted bids for the CRS-2 procurement by the due date of March 21, 2014. Awards were expected in June 2015 but the timing was repeatedly revised.

In the past year, both Orbital ATK and SpaceX suffered unexpected catastrophic launch failures during their most recent resupply flights in October 2014 and June 2015 respectively, which ended in total loss of all the payloads aboard the Cygnus and Dragon cargo freighters. I witnessed and reported on both rocket launch disasters for Universe Today from NASA Wallops in Virginia and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Each company was originally expected to deliver 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware spread out over multiple cargo delivery flights to the ISS under the initial CRS contract.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left).  Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left). Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So NASA truly has a lot on the line while considering CRS 2 and postponing a decision may be wise until after both firms successfully complete their upcoming ‘Return to Flight’ missions – now scheduled for Dec. 3 by Orbital ATK and early January 2016 for SpaceX.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The anticipated award date has been revised to no later than January 30, 2016 to allow time to complete a thorough proposal evaluation and selection,” says NASA.

When asked for a comment and explanation on the decisions and delay, a NASA spokesperson responded to me as follows:

“This is all we’ll be able to say, for right now.”

“Since the agency is in the process of evaluating proposals, we are in a procurement communications blackout. For that reason, NASA cannot answer.”

However, Boeing has been told by NASA that they are out of the running for CRS 2. Earlier reports indicated that Lockheed Martin is also out of the competition.

But there is still plenty of really good news for Boeing since they were already awarded a commercial crew contract in September 2014 to develop the Starliner space taxi to launch astronauts to the ISS.

The first Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule is already being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center, as I detailed earlier on site – here.

For the CRS 2 contract, Boeing submitted a bid to convert Starliner into an unmanned cargo freighter.

Meanwhile Sierra Nevada Corp told Universe Today that their Dream Chaser space plane “remains in contention.”

Dream Chaser is a winged mini shuttle that lost out in NASA commercial crew program competition. SNC submitted a proposal involving an unmanned version of Dream Chaser for the CRS 2 cargo competition building on what they already developed.

“SNC received notification that NASA has delayed the award decision related to Commercial Resupply Services 2 to no later than January 30, 2016,” SNC spokesperson Krystal Scordo told Universe Today.

“SNC remains part of the competitive range. We are proud of our Dream Chaser® Program team and are pleased to remain in contention for this important work in space.”

Unmanned version of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Dream Chaser space plane proposal for NASA cargo resupply contract docks at the International Space Station. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation
Unmanned version of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Dream Chaser space plane proposal for NASA cargo resupply contract docks at the International Space Station. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Neither SpaceX or Orbital will comment about the details of their CRS 2 procurement proposals to Universe Today beyond stating to me that they submitted bids and await NASA’s decision.

The CRS 2 contract is a follow on to the original CRS contract which was to run through at least 2016.

In the meantime, NASA opted to extend the original CRS contract to around 2018 by granting additional interim cargo flights to both SpaceX and Orbital under terms allowed by the contract.

SpaceX was granted five additional Dragon flights and Orbital ATK was given three additional Cygnus flights, for a total of 10 Cygnus resupply missions through about 2018.

The CRS-2 contract is valued at between $1.0 Billion and $1.4 Billion per year and NASA requires this service from approximately 2018 through 2024 according to the RFI.

NASA expects delivery of 14,250 to 16,750 kilograms per year of pressurized cargo as well as 1,500 to 4,000 kg per year of unpressurized cargo and return or disposal of up to 14,250 to 16,750 kg per year of pressurized cargo under CRS 2.

Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center press site for the Orbital Atlas OA-4 cargo liftoff on Dec. 3.

“We are anxious to get flying again not only for our own sake, but really for NASA and the crew!” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems Programs, said in an interview with Universe Today.

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

Ken Kremer