Susy Young was always convinced that her husband, legendary astronaut John Young, actually logged seven launches into space in his career. It was a sentiment echoed by veteran shuttle flyer Jerry Ross, who in April 2002 became “the first” human to record seven space missions. In his memoir, Spacewalker, Ross noted that Young had already launched into space six times from Earth and—via his Apollo 16 mission in April 1972—also once from the surface of the Moon. “Most people forget John launched from the surface of the Moon to return home,” Ross wrote, adding “I’d never argue with Susy!”
At 4:01 a.m. EST today (Saturday, 17 November), an unpiloted Cygnus cargo freighter, laden with 7,500 pounds (3,400 kg) of experiments, equipment, supplies and spare parts for the incumbent Expedition 57 crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS), rocketed to orbit, bearing Young’s name. As the “Spaceship (SS) John Young”, it represents the ninth time that a Cygnus has been named in honor of a deceased former astronaut, coming only months after Young’s death, aged 87, in January. And it also gives Young—in spirit, at least—an eighth space launch to add to his tally of six launches from Earth and his single launch from the Moon.
Coming after two days of delay, caused by a poor weather forecast on Thursday and Friday, this morning’s flight was also the ninth launch—though only the eighth fully successful ascent—of the Antares booster, which originated as the first large, homegrown liquid-fueled rocket ever built by Orbital ATK. Originally developed under the nomenclature of “Taurus”, the vehicle underwent a lengthy and tortured development, before flying its maiden voyage in April 2013. Antares 100-series boosters went on to deliver three Cygnuses to successive ISS crews between September 2013 and July 2014, but suffered a catastrophic explosion, seconds after liftoff, on 28 October 2014. By that time, problems with its Soviet-era AJ-26 engines were already well known and efforts to upgrade them were underway. In December 2014, it was announced that the enhanced Antares 230 booster would utilize a pair of RD-181 engines at the base of its first stage. Since October 2016, and including this morning’s launch, four Antares 230 vehicles have successfully delivered their Cygnus payloads to orbit.
Under the language of its initial Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, signed back in December 2008, Orbital ATK was tasked with staging eight dedicated Cygnus missions, ferrying a total of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of payloads and supplies to successive ISS crews. However, with the increased uplift capacity afforded by a pair of Atlas V launches in December 2015 and March 2016 and the larger payload envelope of the “Enhanced Cygnus”, this target has already been surpassed. Flying for the seventh time today, the Enhanced Cygnus carries a “stretched” Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) and can transport a 60-percent greater haul of payloads than its predecessor, the Standard Cygnus. Standing 15.9 feet (4.86 meters) tall and 10.1 feet (3.1 meters) in diameter, the spacecraft is fitted with low-mass Ultraflex solar arrays, whose characteristic fan-like shape makes the entire vehicle quite distinct from the wing-like appendages of the Standard Cygnus.
In readiness for launch, the 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) Antares 230 booster was rolled out to Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., late Monday, and was raised to a vertical orientation—against gloomy, overcast skies—early Tuesday. The weather outlook for a pre-dawn launch on Thursday seemed bleak. “An area of low pressure is expected to develop and bring rain showers to the Southeastern United States on Wednesday,” NASA noted in its L-3 weather forecast, issued Monday. “These showers will quickly progress to the northeast on Wednesday night into early Thursday, drawing very close to Wallops by the launch window early Thursday morning. The timing of these showers will be key for determining weather suitability for launch Thursday.” With only a 10-percent chance of acceptable conditions on Thursday, with thick clouds, disturbed weather, low cloud ceilings, heavy rainfall and high winds, it was unsurprising when a 24-hour scrub was announced on Wednesday afternoon.
Conditions for the backup attempt early Friday were expected to be calmer. “Rainfall looks to taper off early Friday morning, but strong northwesterly winds are still expected to affect the Eastern Shore during Friday’s backup count and launch window,” NASA noted on Wednesday afternoon. “Winds are expected to be sustained at 25-30 mph with gusts up to 35 mph. Sea states will also be of concern with the prolonged high wind event: Seas are expected to be 8-12 feet during Friday morning’s count and slightly falling off to 8-10 feet during the launch window.” This also became untenable, and assessments of high winds and high seas, forecast for early Friday morning, eventually led to a decision to move the launch attempt to early Saturday, at which point conditions were expected to be 95-percent favorable. “The storm system that produced high winds and heavy rain on Thursday is currently exiting the region and moving off quickly to the northeast,” NASA explained. “Windy conditions will continue through the morning hours, before beginning to subside this afternoon as the area of low pressure moves farther away and high pressure builds closer to the Wallops area.”
Today’s launch marked the first Cygnus and Antares mission to be conducted under the auspices of Bethpage, N.Y.-headquartered Northrop Grumman Corp., which completed its acquisition of Orbital ATK earlier in 2018. This has produced an interesting change in mission designators throughout the Cygnus program. The cargo ship and booster were designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. and the early Cygnus missions (2013-2014) received the “ORB-xx” designator, after which Orbital merged with elements of Alliant TechSystems in early 2015 and the next six missions (2015-2018) were labelled “OA-xx”. Now, after Northrop Grumman’s purchase, future missions will receive the “NG-xx” nomenclature. As such, today’s mission is known as “NG-10”. Or “Spaceship John Young”, if you prefer.
Late Friday evening, engineers and flight controllers came to their consoles at Wallops to begin powering-up the booster and chilling its propellant systems with liquid nitrogen. Tanking was critically timed about 90 minutes before T-0, due to temporal limits associated with the rapid boil-off of the cryogens. A final poll of flight controllers occurred in two phases and by T-15 minutes all of Antares’ propellant tanks had attained flight pressure and were verified at “Flight Ready” levels. Shortly thereafter, the vehicle transitioned to Internal Power and at T-11 minutes the Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) was armed to effect a rapid retraction at T-0.
At 4:01 a.m. EST Saturday, cutting through the pre-dawn darkness of Wallops Island, the two RD-181 engines at the base of the rocket thundered to life and quickly ramped up to a combined thrust of 937,000 pounds (425,000 kg). Antares cleared the Pad 0A tower, right on the start of the five-minute “launch window”, and rose dramatically into the Virginia sky, commencing a pitch and roll program maneuver to establish itself onto the proper flight azimuth for orbital insertion. Maximum aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle’s airframe occurred at T+80 seconds. All told, the RD-181 engines burned for 3.5 minutes, consuming almost 530,000 pounds (240,000 kg) of propellants, before shutting down. The first stage was then jettisoned and the solid-fueled Castor-XL upper stage ignited to position the NG-10 Cygnus into an orbital “slot” about 220 miles (350 km) above Earth. Seventy minutes after leaving Pad 0A, Cygnus’ solar arrays were unfurled, ready for a two-day chase of the space station.
Laden with 7,500 pounds (3,400 kg) of experiments, equipment and supplies, the NG-10 mission represents the first visit to the ISS—piloted or unpiloted—since the high-altitude launch failure of Soyuz MS-10 in October. The station is currently staffed by just three members: Expedition 57 Commander Alexander Gerst of Germany, representing the European Space Agency (ESA), and his crewmates Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev, all of whom have been in orbit since June and are expected to return to Earth in December.
Key payloads aboard Cygnus include Refrabricator, a demonstration of an integrated 3D printer and recycler, which will recycle plastic waste materials into high-quality 3D-printed filament, which could permit sustainable fabrication, repair and recycling on future long-duration missions. The joint U.S./Canadian VECTION investigation will examine changes in sensory input in microgravity, which can cause human errors in velocity, distance or orientation perception, whilst a NASA-funded experiment to examine the complex process of cement solidification carries great potential for future concrete-based structures on extraterrestrial bodies. After the ISS samples are returned to Earth, detailed microstructural analyses will be undertaken in the hope that safer, more lightweight space-based habitats may be developed in the future, as well more improved cement-processing techniques on the ground. The Experimental Chondrule Formation at the ISS (EXCISS) simulates the high-energy, low-gravity formation of the Solar System to better understand how the initial “stardust” caused by stellar evolution processes evolved into large enough particles to form planets, their moons and other celestial bodies. The experiment will emit an electrical charge into a container filled with specially formulated dust particles, once per hour over a 30-day period, to examine the shape and texture of the resulting “pellets” in the unique microgravity environment afforded by the ISS. Other staples of station research include protein crystal growth—specifically the protein Leucine-rich repeat kinase-2 (LRRK-2), which is deeply implicated in the development of Parkinson’s disease—and a series of tests of new gas-separation membranes, with pores 100 nanometers and smaller.
Following today’s successful launch, Cygnus will rendezvous with the ISS on Monday, 19 November, whereupon Auñón-Chancellor will grapple it with the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm. Ground controllers will then command the arm to rotate and install Cygnus onto the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Unity connecting module. Current plans are for Cygnus to remain attached to the ISS until mid-February 2019, after which it will be robotically detached and intentionally burned up in the atmosphere later that same month.