NG-13 Cygnus Begins ISS Chase with 8,000 Pounds of Cargo for Space Station

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket lofting the Cygnus cargo ship on the NG-13 mission to resupply the ISS for NASA. Photo: NASA

The roar of rocket engines shook Wallops Island, Va., earlier today (Saturday, 15 February), as the first of two Northrop Grumman Corp. Cygnus missions planned for 2020 began its journey to the International Space Station (ISS). Liftoff of the Antares 230+ booster occurred at 3:21 p.m. EST from picturesque Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).

Laden with 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of payloads, supplies and equipment for Expedition 62 Commander Oleg Skripochka and Flight Engineers Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir—newly reduced to a three-person increment following last week’s departure of Soyuz MS-13—the NG-13 Cygnus will spend two days in transit, before being robotically captured early Tuesday, 18 February, and berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node.

WATCH THE LAUNCH!
Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus NG-13 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) appropriately memorializes Robert H. Lawrence, the U.S. Air Force major who became the first African-American to be selected for astronaut candidate training and might—had the hands of fate turned more kindly—have been selected into NASA’s own corps and become one of the early Space Shuttle test pilots. Photo: USAF

Named in honor of Air Force major Robert H. Lawrence, the first African-American ever selected for astronaut candidate training, NG-13 appropriately recognizes Black History Month, which is being celebrated across America through February. Lawrence was selected in June 1967 as one of several military pilots for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, a secretive space station, but was tragically killed in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter just six months later, aged 32. Several of his MOL classmates were later hired by NASA and flew several early Space Shuttle missions and it is likely that, had Lawrence lived, he would have been among them. In all probability, he would have become the first African-American astronaut, a year or two before Guy Bluford eventually took that record.

Naming Cygnuses in honor of giants of the aerospace world began with the original builder of Cygnus, Orbital Sciences Corp., a tradition continued in its subsequent incarnation as Orbital ATK and since the 2018 purchase of the firm by Northrop Grumman. To date, including Lawrence, thirteen individuals have been memorialized, with dual recognition for “Original Seven” Project Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton. Three veteran Apollo Moonwalkers—Gene Cernan, John Young and Al Bean—have had Cygnuses named after them, as have former shuttle commanders Gordon Fullerton, Alan “Dex” Poindexter and Columbia’s final skipper, Rick Husband. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, was recognized, as was unflown Apollo 1 hero Roger Chaffee and former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson.

Cygnus approaching the ISS. Photo: NASA

As outlined in AmericaSpace’s NG-13 mission preview article, this latest Cygnus is the second member of the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract, signed between NASA and Orbital ATK back in January 2016 to provide ISS services from 2019 through 2024. Key emphases of its research payloads are biology, biotechnology and the development and demonstration of new technologies that will span Expedition 62 and several forthcoming increments over the coming year. The NASA-sponsored Mobile SpaceLab affords a quick-turnaround tissue and cell-culturing facility capable of sophisticated biology investigations in the microgravity environment, whilst the Mochii miniature scanning electron microscope will allow for in-situ spectroscopic imaging and compositional analysis of potentially damaging or harmful particles in the ISS atmosphere. 

Elsewhere, the OsteoOmics experiment forms the latest threat in an ongoing campaign to better understand the mechanisms responsible for bone loss in astronauts, a phenomenon which also occurs in the elderly here on Earth through such conditions as osteopenia and osteoporosis. And the Phage Evolution investigation seeks to examine the effects of the high-radiation microgravity environment on bacteriophages—viruses which specifically invade and destroy bacteria, used extensively to combat infectious diseases—in an effort to develop alternatives to antibiotics.

A rundown of the science on NG-13

According to Northrop Grumman, the total NG-13 payload breakdown encompasses 1,669 pounds (757 kg) of crew supplies, 3,534 pounds (1,603 kg) of vehicle-related hardware, 200 pounds (91 kg) of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) equipment and 64 pounds (29 kg) of computer resources.

Last week, the 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) Antares 230+ booster was rolled from its horizontal integration facility out to Pad 0A at MARS, where it was elevated to the vertical to permit the mating of all rocket connections, save the liquid oxygen loading line. The entire vehicle was then returned to a horizontal configuration to permit the now-customary “late loading” of cargo, allowing engineers to insert time-critical payloads into the Cygnus within 24 hours before launch. This required a mobile payload processing facility to be sealed over Antares’ nose fairing to afford clean-room conditions. The specialized fairing itself, nicknamed the “pop-top”, was then removed to give access to the Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM). When the late-loading protocol was complete, Antares was returned to its vertical configuration to begin formal countdown operations. 

Moonrise over Antares and Cygnus NG-13. Photo: NASA

The first launch attempt on Sunday, 9 February, was scrubbed due to an off-nominal readings from a ground-support sensor. This was replaced in anticipation of a second attempt on Thursday, 13 February, but this also slipped 24 hours to the right in order to benefit from a better weather outlook on Friday, 14 February. With an 80-percent probability of acceptable conditions on Valentine’s Day, it seemed that Friday would be love at first sight for Antares and Cygnus. But high-level winds put paid to the attempt and launch was rescheduled for Saturday.

Early Saturday, engineers and flight controllers came to their Wallops consoles to begin powering up the booster and chilling its propellant systems with liquid nitrogen. Tanking was critically timed in order to adhere to temporal limits associated with the rapid boil-off of Antares’ cryogenic oxygen. A final poll of flight controllers occurred in two phases and by T-15 minutes all of the rocket’s propellant tanks had reached flight pressure and were verified at “Flight Ready” levels. Shortly afterwards, the vehicle transferred to Internal Power and at T-11 minutes the Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) was armed to effect a rapid retraction when the clock hit T-0. 

Photo: NASA TV

Liftoff occurred at 3:21 p.m. EST, as the two RD-181 engines at the base of Antares roared to life and quickly ramped up to their maximum combined thrust of 937,000 pounds (425,000 kg). The vehicle cleared the Pad 0A tower and rose dramatically into the Virginia sky, commencing a pitch and roll program maneuver to establish itself onto the proper flight azimuth. All told, the Russian-heritage RD-181s burned for 3.5 minutes, before shutting down on time. The first stage was then discarded, before the solid-fueled Castor-30XL upper stage ignited and burned for 2.5 minutes to put the NG-13 Cygnus into low-Earth orbit. Seventy minutes after leaving MARS, Cygnus’ fan-like solar arrays were deployed.

Current plans call for the NG-13 Cygnus to be robotically grappled by Expedition 62’s Drew Morgan using the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm at 4:05 a.m. Tuesday, 18 February.

A previous Cygnus cargo ship arriving at the ISS. Photo: NASA

Expedition 62 will run at a reduced crew-strength of just three members until April, when Soyuz MS-16 joins them with a fresh crew of Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin, together with former NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy. Following a short handover period, Skripochka, Morgan and Meir will return to Earth in mid-April, wrapping up their long-duration increment, and leaving Cassidy in command of Expedition 63.

It was expected that the first piloted flight of the CST-100 Starliner—carrying NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, together with former shuttle commander and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson—around mid-year to restore the ISS crew to six members. But recent revelations about serious software problems experienced during last year’s Starliner Orbital Flight Test (OFT) increases the possibility that the station may remain at three-person crew strength for much of 2020.

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