Orbital ATK has finally put last year’s rocket explosion in its rearview mirror with a successful return-to-flight rocket launch for NASA.
Orbital’s recently upgraded OA-4 Cygnus spacecraft lifted off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 4:45 p.m. EST Dec. 6 in a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.
The Atlas — which Orbital is using until it can get its own Antares rockets back into active use — launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It originally was scheduled for a Dec. 3 launch until unfavorable weather conditions forced delays on three successive days.
“Performance looks nominal,” NASA’s Marty Malinowski could be heard advising on NASA TV some nine minutes after liftoff.
The Cygnus separated from engine components just over 21 minutes post-launch to continue its orbital journey toward the ISS, with applause among those at mission control clearly audible.
The Cygnus is loaded with 7,000 pounds of vehicle supplies and hardware, plus materials for science experiments such as new studies on cell cultures and other microorganisms. It’s scheduled to reach the ISS on Dec. 9, when NASA crewmembers Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly will use a robotic arm to capture the craft. The Cygnus will remain docked at the space station until January.
The mission marks the first flight of an “enhanced” Cygnus, boasting features including expanded payloads and new fuel tanks. The spacecraft’s pressurized cargo module has been extended, resulting in its interior space growing by 25 percent and cargo weight capacity by 53 percent.
Orbital has been forced to ground its Antares rockets until defective engines blamed for the Oct. 28, 2014 explosion of an ISS cargo craft can be replaced. The Dulles, Va.-based company has dropped its previous supplier of those Soviet-built engines and instead will use a new vendor and different, Russian-made engines in Antares.
Orbital ATK dubbed the ISS mission’s Cygnus the “S.S. Deke Slayton II,” continuing a tradition of naming each Cygnus in honor of astronauts and other contributors to the U.S. commercial space program.
“With the naming of this spacecraft, we continue our commitment to honor the late Donald ‘Deke’ K. Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and a champion of America’s commercial space program and leadership in space,” said Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital’s Space Systems Group.