Nearly one year following a spectacular launch failure at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility that lit up Virginia’s evening skies (and the evening news), Orbital ATK is gearing up for the planned Dec. 3 launch of an enhanced unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which will be mated to an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s (CCAFS) Launch Complex 41.
Orbital ATK announced Tuesday, Oct. 12, that it delivered the cargo ship’s service module to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, soon to be integrated with the ship’s pressurized cargo module (PCM). The company stated that the service module contains Cygnus’ avionics, electrical, propulsion, and communications systems, while the PCM contains the spacecraft’s cargo volume. The OA-4 mission will mark the first of two planned launches utilizing United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V launch vehicle mated with a Cygnus spacecraft, and the first mission of the enhanced cargo ship, which will be able to carry 7,700 pounds of supplies, experiments, and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).
Orbital ATK added in their announcement that the final assembly, cargo loading, and fueling of Cygnus will also take place at KSC. Besides being the first “enhanced” variant of Cygnus, the spacecraft will also boast UltraFlex solar arrays, described as “the latest in lightweight space-qualified power system technology”; these arrays were developed by the company’s Space Components Division.
Cygnus’ “return to flight” comes after a very public catastrophic failure. On Oct. 28, 2014, Orb 3, Cygnus’ third commercial resupply flight, came to an abrupt, fiery end as the mission’s Antares 130 launch vehicle fell back to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s (MARS) Launch Pad 0A just seconds after liftoff. The cargo ship, christened the Deke Slayton (after the late Mercury 7/Apollo-Soyuz astronaut), was destroyed in a massive conflagration; the launch pad and adjacent areas sustained $15 million in damages. This kicked off a difficult year in cargo deliveries to the ISS, as a Russian Progress cargo ship and a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule were also total losses after experiencing post-launch calamities.
While a previous AmericaSpace article discussed theories concerning possible causes of the failure (Orbital ATK blamed a turbopump failure of the rocket’s AJ-26 engines supplied by Aerojet, while Aerojet rebutted this cause, focusing blame on improper handling), the company has replaced the AJ-26 engines on the Antares 130 variant, and has instead purchased Russian RD-181 engines from NPO Energomash for its more powerful Antares 230 variant. A brief hot firing of the new first stage is planned to take place in December or January. The new launch vehicle will be able to haul 15,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. While that vehicle is being readied, another enhanced Cygnus will be delivered to the ISS in early spring 2016, utilizing an Atlas V. Orbital ATK stated that three commercial resupply CRS missions are in the pipeline for 2016.
In addition, repairs to MARS Launch Pad 01 were recently wrapped up. The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority announced weeks ago that repairs were completed by a Sept. 30 deadline, with NASA, Orbital ATK, and Virginia Space splitting the cost three ways, contributing $5 million each. An AmericaSpace article illuminated the scope of the damage sustained at the site, and the efforts to return it to health:
“Over the last few months, 90 [to] 100 MARS employees and contractors worked round the clock to restore Launch Pad 0A to a flight-ready condition. Work began with remediation around the impact site, where the 20-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep crater was filled and contaminants were removed from the topsoil. Damaged structures were repaired and replaced, including liquid propellant feed lines which supply liquid oxygen and kerosene to the rocket and portions of the sound suppression water deluge system, which flood the pad with water to protect it from the energy released at liftoff. New lightning protection towers were installed, two of which were demolished in the explosion. An upgraded hydraulic system was installed, which will be capable of erecting the new Antares in its heavier 230 configuration. Electrical systems, heating and cooling systems, and the pad’s fire alarm were also repaired.” The article underscored that the most critical structures of the pad were fortunately (and incredibly) spared in the rocket’s fall back, and ensuing fire.
While the launch pad has “healed” from the accident and Antares receives an upgrade, Orbital ATK was pressed into making commercial resupply flights a reality, even without a flagship launch vehicle. The Cygnus spacecraft was designed to be adaptable with multiple launch vehicles, allowing for flexibility; Orbital ATK emphasized, “This capability supports NASA’s requirements for additional cargo and also provides better schedule assurance for future missions.”
Frank Culbertson, president of the company’s Space Systems Group and former space shuttle/ISS astronaut, emphasized the program’s adaptability despite adversity. “With OA-4 set to launch in December and at least three additional missions to the Space Station planned in 2016, we remain solidly on schedule to meet our CRS cargo requirements for NASA. Our team’s performance in meeting milestones on an accelerated time line demonstrates the company’s flexibility and responsiveness to customer needs,” he declared. If all goes as planned, on Dec. 3, space watchers new and seasoned can thrill to seeing a unique, “two-of-its-kind” launch, as an Atlas V launcher lofts a Cygnus cargo ship to orbit.
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