A two stage Orbital Antares rocket lifted off from Virginia’s Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport Launch Pad 0A earlier today, taking roughly 10 minutes to put the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft into low earth orbit.
Over the next three days, the Cygnus C. Gordon Fullerton --named after a NASA astronaut/Dryden test pilot – will conduct a series of maneuvers to rendezvous and berth with the space station on Sunday, January 12. The spacecraft is carrying around a total of 1,500 kilograms of cargo to the station. Items onboard include fresh fruit for the astronauts, about 450 kilograms of research experiments and a set of children’s books to be read in orbit by station crew as part of a STEM outreach program.
Today’s launch marks the third successful launch of Antares from Wallops and the second flight of the Cygnus spacecraft. This is the fifth commercial supply vehicle to be launched into orbit, joining three SpaceX missions to the ISS. NASA’s once-controversial Commercial Orbital Transport System (COTS) effort successfully matured a pair of new commercial rockets and two new spacecraft at a fraction of the cost of a government-owned effort.
Once connected to ISS, Cygnus will spend 40 to 45 days attached to ISS. The crew will first unloaded of all of its supplies, crew goodies, spare parts, and research experiment, along with Christmas presents originally planned to be delivered in late December on Orb-1’s original launch date. Once empty, it will be filled with disposable materiel (i.e., trash) before being released to a destructive re-entry over the South Pacific.
Orb-1 is the Orbital’s first commercial cargo delivery mission under a $1.8 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Under the contract, Orbital is scheduled to provide up to 8 flights through 2016, with the next two flights penciled in for May and October. NASA is in the process of designing the follow-on contract after CRS, a prospect that has now been boosted by yesterday’s White House declaration to keep ISS operating through 2024.
Extension of ISS operations for another 10 years is expected to bring long-term stability and lower pricing to the ecosystem of researchers and commercial vendors supporting station operations. Orbital officials hinted and NASA officials expect cargo flight pricing should go down in future contracts between price competition and greater efficiencies as commercial companies move from R&D operations to production – assuming NASA signed up for cargo flights in bulk on a multi-year contract.
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