ULA Atlas V to Deliver Next Orbital ATK Cygnus Cargo Ship to Space Station

Following last month's successful return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares booster, the next Cygnus cargo mission for the International Space Station (ISS) will fly atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. Photo Credit: Cole Ippoliti
Following last month’s successful return to flight of Orbital ATK’s Antares booster, the next Cygnus cargo mission for the International Space Station (ISS) will fly atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. Photo Credit: Cole Ippoliti

After a spectacular 12 months, which saw both its Cygnus cargo ship and its home-grown Antares booster return to flight, after a lengthy hiatus, Orbital ATK has announced that its next delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will likely fly next spring, atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401. The decision apparently stems from NASA concerns about the potentially damaging impact of having both of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) partners—the Dulles, Va.-headquartered Orbital ATK and the Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX—out of action for a protracted period of time, as was the case for several months from October 2014 and June 2015. It thus serves to satisfy the agency’s requirement for “enhanced schedule assurance” for cargo deliveries and maximizes the capacity of critical supplies destined for the station in 2017. Current plans call for Orbital ATK to launch three Cygnuses to the ISS next year.

“Following a successful Antares launch for the recent OA-5 Commercial Resupply Services mission and subsequent rendezvous and berthing of the Cygnus spacecraft with the International Space Station, Orbital ATK has responded to NASA’s needs for enhanced schedule assurance for cargo deliveries and maximum capacity of critical supplies to the space station in 2017 by once again partnering with United Launch Alliance to launch Cygnus aboard an Atlas V for the upcoming OA-7 mission in the spring timeframe,” noted an Orbital ATK statement, seen by AmericaSpace. “The company will be ready to support three cargo resupply missions to the station next year and will work with NASA to finalize the flight schedule.”

The Enhanced Cygnus has now completed three missions to the space station since December 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Tim Peake/Twitter
The Enhanced Cygnus has now completed three missions to the space station since December 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Tim Peake/Twitter

When Orbital Sciences Corp. (as it was back then) and SpaceX signed the inaugural CRS1 contracts with NASA in December 2008, both launch providers were expected to complete their respective number of missions by December 2016. Each would transport a total of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of payloads and supplies to miscellaneous ISS crews, via eight Cygnus and 12 Dragon cargo vehicles. As circumstances transpired, both partners met with significant delay: SpaceX did not stage its inaugural Dragon to the station until May 2012 and in Orbital’s case it was September 2013 before an ISS crew first caught sight of an incoming Cygnus. This fulfilled a core CRS1 requirement of staging a “Demonstration” flight, before the partners were able to press ahead with their contracted haul of dedicated resupply missions. In SpaceX’s case, its first dedicated mission (CRS-1) took place in October 2012 and that of Orbital (ORB-1) came in January 2014.

More recently, the catastrophic explosion of Orbital’s Antares booster, seconds after liftoff on the ORB-3 mission in October 2014, and the high-altitude breakup of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 whilst en-route to deliver CRS-7 to the space station in June 2015, placed the CRS program in the dire situation of having both commercial partners simultaneously out of action. Matters were worsened yet further by the failure, earlier in 2015, of a Russian Progress cargo ship, which carried the potential of adversely impacting the ISS crew.

In the weeks after its Antares failure, Orbital Sciences Corp.—which merged with elements of ATK Thiokol in early 2015 to become “ATK Thiokol”—contracted with ULA to deliver at least two future Cygnus missions atop the highly reliable Atlas V 401 booster. This served to close the gap in flight operations before an anticipated resumption of Antares launches in mid-2016. A pair of Cygnuses were successfully launched atop Atlas vehicles in December 2015 and March 2016, before Antares triumphantly lofted OA-5 last month. In the meantime, SpaceX successfully returned its Falcon 9 to flight in December 2015 and launched a pair of Dragons to the ISS in April and July 2016.

However, it has since met with a further setback, when a Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad on 1 September, ahead of a standard static-firing of its first-stage engines. The incident totally destroyed the rocket and its commercial payload, the $195 million Amos-6 communications satellite. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, SpaceX anticipates a return to flight no sooner than December 2016, although the failure adds yet more delay to the CRS program.

It is understood that the current risk-level associated with the Antares 230 booster, whose first stage is propelled by a pair of Russian-built RD-181 engines, has been met with some concern by NASA. This apparently prompted the space agency to request Orbital ATK to utilize ULA’s Atlas V, which benefits from a more rapid launch capability and offers a more promising outlook in terms of schedule adherence. As for SpaceX, it remains to be seen if the failures which triggered the CRS-7 high-altitude break-up in June 2015 and the on-pad explosion of Amos-6 last September are related. Orbital ATK brought Antares back to operational status only after several months of delays through the summer of 2016. Excluding their Demonstration flights, Orbital ATK has now flown five fully successful Cygnus missions and SpaceX has conducted eight fully successful Dragon missions. Last year, the original CRS1 allocation was extended for both partners and in January 2016 both were selected by NASA—along with Sierra Nevada Corp.—for the follow-on CRS2 contract, which will continue to resupply space station crews through the anticipated end of ISS operations in 2024.

Novosti Kosmonavtiki has noted that next year’s trio of Cygnus missions, numbered OA-7 through OA-9, are targeted to fly in March, June and October, with each cargo ship remaining berthed at the space station for approximately two months, ahead of departure and a destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. “The plan is to fly our Enhanced Cygnus on an Atlas V in the spring and all four remaining CRS1 missions will be flown on our own Antares,” Orbital ATK told AmericaSpace on Monday. “We are still working to finalize the details of this change to fly on Atlas in the spring. While we expect it to go forward, we’re still working through the final details.”


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  1. Thank you Ben Evans for the useful Cygnus Cargo Ship update!

    Long-term, there are some interesting new launcher possibilities and considerations for the Cygnus Cargo Ship.

    “The company is already planning for a new generation of vehicles that could supplement or replace the Antares.”

    And, “In this way, NGL isn’t just a rocket: it’s a solution to a whole group of problems. Everyone loves a bargain, and if Orbital ATK can convince NASA and the US military that such a rocket can fulfill their launch needs while also lowering costs for projects like SLS and ballistic missile production, they will lock in the two most-demanding (and highest-paying) customers in the space business.”

    From: “Orbital ATK, CRS-2, and the return of ‘The Stick'”
    By Jeffrey Smith Monday, November 7, 2016
    At: http://thespacereview.com/article/3097/1

    If in the long-term Orbital ATK is going to use advanced versions of the Cygnus Cargo Ship to provide supplies to a space station in Lunar orbit and eventually Lunar surface bases, it may need a much larger launcher than the current Antares.

    An Orbital ATK built super large launcher based on an advanced New Generation Launcher (NGL), or an Americanized and larger diameter Antares supplemented with the SLS’s SRBs, could be quite reliable, doable, and capable.

    And of course an electric ion propulsion system for the Cygnus would also be useful.


    ‘An international outpost near the Moon gets closer to reality’
    By Anatoly Zak 2016/11/03


    ‘Why NASA May Ferry the First Cosmonaut to the Moon
    The big space agencies are planning their next project together—a human outpost that orbits the moon.’ By Anatoly Zak Nov 7, 2016
    At: http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a23742/nasa-cosmonaut-moon-orion/

  2. Antares is nothing more than the continued proliferation of ICBMs in the name of dead-end LEO exploration.

    • Really?

      And in any case, so what?

      Beating ‘swords into plowshares’ is a very old idea. Learn to live with it.

      “Soyuz (Russian: Союз, meaning “union”, GRAU index 11A511) is a family of expendable launch systems developed by OKB-1, and manufactured by Progress State Research and Production Rocket Space Center in Samara, Russia. The Soyuz launch vehicle is the most frequently used and reliable launch vehicle in the world.[1]”

      And, “The Soyuz launcher was introduced in 1966, deriving from the Vostok launcher, which in turn was based on the 8K74 or R-7a intercontinental ballistic missile. It was initially a three-stage rocket with a Block I upper stage. Later a Molniya variant was produced by adding a fourth stage, allowing it to reach the highly elliptical molniya orbit. A later variant was the Soyuz-U.”

      And, “The production of Soyuz launchers reached a peak of 60 per year in the early 1980s. It has become the world’s most used space launcher, flying over 1700 times, far more than any other rocket. Despite its age and perhaps thanks to its simplicity, this rocket family has been notable for its low cost and very high reliability, both of which appeal to commercial clients.”

      From: ‘Soyuz (rocket family)’ Wikipedia
      At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soyuz_%28rocket_family%29

      Lots and lots of various types of happy “clients” are critical for reducing launch costs.

      Note also that a future new 8.4 meter diameter Americanized kerolox Antares launcher that uses the SRBs from the SLS could make efficient use of the Launchpad 39B and VAB national assets while also be quite useful for getting advanced versions of the Cygnus Cargo Ship and essential supplies to a Lunar orbit space station and eventually surface bases on the Moon.

      Since NASA ‘gave’ the enormous Launchpad 39A to SpaceX for their supposedly ‘fast response’ military satellite family of overly complex launchers, we also need some more enormous launchpads to be built at potential launchpad sites 39C and 39D.

      • With the President, Orbital and SpaceX strongly and successfully encouraging the international proliferation of various types of private cheap ICBMs/launchers to enable many of us to launch satellites and fly off to the ISS, it would seem useful to be able to quickly and accurately communicate projected missile trajectory, or trajectories, of any ‘ugly surprise’ launch, or launches, of an unfriendly ICBM, or several unfriendly ICBMs, to every military force in the world with nuclear weapons and/or missile interception capabilities.

        This eternal planet wide vigilance against unfriendly ‘cheap and ugly ICBMs’ will obviously require continuous close and intense real time cooperation and trust between all the world’s military and intelligence forces in order to avoid any extremely nasty consequences from such an unfriendly ‘ugly surprise’ cheap ICBM launch, or salvo of launches.

        Of course, the usefulness of this level of international military cooperation and trust does assume every military force has 100% reliable interception capabilities and that everyone’s military and missile interceptors are always on a high state of alert readiness. These assumptions may be quite inaccurate and lead to hard to fathom disasters.

        A guaranteed five minute ‘target warning’ app for cell phones and the speaker systems of public buildings in the cheap and ugly ICBM targeted impact location, or locations, might be useful.

        Be assured though that our President, Orbital and SpaceX will probably have suitable press releases to clarify their denial of cheap and ugly ICBM/launcher proliferation responsibility in order to console the survivors and calm angry folks around the world.

        “Perry reminds us that two of the four scenarios – a nuclear war by accident and a nuclear war by miscalculation – are comparable to those the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced in the Cold War.”

        And, “The point is this: Any of the four scenarios could bring about the worst catastrophe we have ever experienced. Taken together they represent a higher likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe than we faced during the Cold War. (That judgment has also been reached by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which this year noted that its “Doomsday Clock” is at three minutes to midnight, closer to doomsday than they had judged we were for most of the Cold War years.)”

        From: ‘On the Brink of Oblivion William Perry’s memoir, ‘My Journey at the Nuclear Brink’, serves as a clarion global warning.’ By Mortimer B. Zuckerman Chairman, Editor-in-Chief
        June 7, 2016 at: U.S.NEWS

        Obviously, with the “Doomsday Clock” “at three minutes to midnight” encouraging the international Cold War II proliferation and instability of cheap and ugly ICBMs/launchers should be the highest priority for our tax dollars.

        Thank you Orbital, SpaceX and Obama!

  3. The Moon is where we humans are headed to.


    To tap its natural resources.

    Folks around the world can understand the importance of tapping and using the Moon’s natural resources to improve life for everyone here on Earth.

    Do you like Space based Solar Power? Great! Build the solar cell panels and support structures on the Moon and launch them using Lunar propellant and electromagnetic launch systems.

    “China has now set its sights on development of the Long March-9, a super-heavy lift rocket in the class of the Apollo program’s Saturn V rocket. This powerful rocket likely remains about 15 years from its debut and is projected to have a payload-to-LEO capacity of at least 130 metric tons and a payload-to-LTO capacity of at least 50 metric tons.”

    And under the photo: “If a Republican wins the 2016 election, Griffin could return to NASA or elsewhere to shape policy.”

    From: ‘China now has a rocket that can land taikonauts on the Moon’
    By Eric Berger 11/9/2016
    At: http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/11/china-now-has-a-rocket-that-can-land-taikonauts-on-the-moon/

    China wants to go to the Moon. Let’s see if President Trump can work something out so that everyone on Earth can go the Moon together to tap its vast natural resources and many other opportunities.

    Landing an evolved Cygnus Cargo Ship on the Moon would be nifty.

  4. Perhaps, with the upcoming changes in the Presidential leadership of NASA, Orbital ATK is a bit closer to using advanced versions of the Cygnus Cargo Ship for a very long time into the future in order to provide supplies to a space station in low Lunar orbit, Lunar surface bases, the ISS in LEO and other space stations in various higher Earth orbits.

    “In brief, Congressman Bridenstine’s vision is very much in tune with the uses of the Moon envisaged in the former Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)—a steady, cumulative progression of human and robotic presence beyond low Earth orbit, including the use of the material and energy resources of the Moon. The rationale for a directed lunar push lies in the development of cislunar space for a wide variety of practical purposes, such as large distributed space systems and space solar power generation for Earth.

    From: ‘Favorable Signs for a Lunar Return
    The Moon may once again play a significant role in the U.S. space program.’
    By By Paul D. Spudis
    November 14, 2016
    At: http://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/favorable-signs-lunar-return-180961083/#TDyXA5HWuJgmDqJA.99

    The ISS can be modified and enlarged to serve for many decades as an efficient risk reducing staging, or mission stacking, facility for international human missions headed off to tap the Moon’s resources and many diverse scientific and business Lunar opportunities that will help us to increase our pace in developing Cislunar Space.

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