NASA and Northrop Grumman Corp. are targeting Tuesday, 29 September for the next uncrewed visitor to the International Space Station (ISS), as the NG-14 Cygnus cargo ship—as-yet-unnamed, but expected to be given the name of someone who has played a role in human space exploration—makes the uphill trek from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., to the sprawling multi-national orbiting outpost, with a full load of experiments, payloads and supplies. And if the mission does indeed take flight on its alloted date, it will occur on the seventh anniversary of the very first Cygnus visit to the ISS.
“Preparations are underway at @NASA_Wallops for the NG-14 #Cygnus spacecraft launch aboard our #Antares rocket,” noted prime contractor Northrop Grumman in a Monday tweet. “Targeted for Sept 29.”
Assuming an on-time launch atop Northrop Grumman’s 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) Antares 230+ booster, it can be expected that Cygnus will arrive in the vicinity of the space station approximately two days later. It will be robotically captured by the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm and berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node. And if Crew-1—the first “operational” Crew Dragon mission—launches as planned in late September, NG-14 may be received by a long-duration crew of seven for the first time in ISS Program history. Cygnus will remain berthed at the station for around a month, before a scheduled departure and destructive re-entry in November.
It has been a long and tumultuous seven years since the first Cygnus, designated “ORB-D”, a “demonstration” mission flown by Orbital Sciences Corp., launched on 18 September 2013 and following several delays en-routewas robotically berthed at the ISS eleven days later. The spacecraft was selected as one of two commercial providers for NASA under the first phase of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, signed back in December 2008, whose provisions initially required eight Cygnus missions. Under the terms of the contract, Orbital would launch upwards of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of payloads and supplies to successive ISS crews through 2016.
It was intended that Cygnus would fly atop Orbital’s home-grown Antares booster from the MARS site, but due to technical issues with the development of the rocket and issues pertaining to cryogenic tankage, ORB-D suffered significant delay. Following ORB-D, a pair of dedicated missions (ORB-1 and ORB-2) took place successfully in January and July 2014, followed by the catastrophic loss of ORB-3 the following October.
Captured in an array of spectacular imagery by AmericaSpace’s photography team, the Antares carrying the ORB-3 Cygnus was lost a few seconds after liftoff, in an accident later blamed upon a liquid oxygen turbopump failure. The next two cargo missions—designated “OA-4” and “OA-6”, after Orbital Sciences’ merger with Alliant TechSystems to become Orbital ATK, Inc.—rode atop United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V boosters in December 2015 and March 2016, whose increased uplift capability and a transition from the “standard” Cygnus to the larger payload envelope of an “enhanced” variant allowed the initial CRS payload mass requirement of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) to be surpassed.
Unlike the standard Cygnus, the enhanced configuration, used on ten missions between December 2015 and February 2020, benefits from a larger Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) and can deliver a 60-percent-greater haul of payloads and supplies compared to its predecessor. Combined with its attached Service Module (SM), the enhanced Cygnus stands 15.9 feet (4.86 meters) tall, about 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) higher than the standard version, although their respective diameters are the same at 10.1 feet (3.07 meters).
And although the enhanced Cygnus is 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) more massive, it can handle a bigger payload volume in the region of 950 cubic feet (27 cubic meters). It also carries low-mass Ultraflex solar arrays, whose characteristic fan-like shape makes the appearance of the newer Cygnus quite distinct from the wing-like appendages of the earlier one.
In August 2015, it was reported that several additional Cygnus missions had been contracted as part of an “extension” program to bridge the gap between the closeout of the CRS1 award and the anticipated start of a follow-on CRS2. And in January 2016, Orbital ATK won a slice of the CRS2 contract, which runs from 2019 through 2024. Under its language, the company—which was acquired by Northrop Grumman Corp. in 2018—would receive at least six additional Cygnus missions. The NG-12 mission, launched in November 2019, marked the first launch under CRS2. And with NG-11 still in orbit, was also the first occasion that as many as two Cygnuses were in independent flight at the same time.
And as the Cygnus nomenclature has changed—from the “ORB-xx” prefixes of missions flown under Orbital Sciences Corp., to the “OA-xx” prefixes under Orbital ATK and, since November 2018, to the “NG-xx” prefixes under Northrop Grumman—one enduring commonality has been the tradition of naming each spacecraft after a deceased person. Under Orbital Sciences, this was identified as someone who had contributed either to the firm’s goals or more generally to the commercial spaceflight agenda, with former NASA astronauts David Low, Gordon Fullerton and Janice Voss (all of whom had worked for Orbital) honored on the first three Cygnus missions.
More recently, this has expanded to include “other” astronauts, including Project Mercury national heroes John Glenn and Deke Slayton, Moonwalkers Gene Cernan, John Young and Al Bean, veteran shuttle commanders Rick Husband and Alan “Dex” Poindexter and unflown astronauts Roger Chaffee and Robert H. Lawrence.
Several of those ships—including Fullerton, Voss and Glenn—were named shortly after those astronauts’ passing, whilst Lawrence’s name coincided with this year’s Black History Month and Chaffee’s name was tied to the 2019 anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing which the sacrifice of he and his Apollo 1 crewmates had helped immeasurably to enable. Only one Cygnus to date has been named for an individual who never undertook astronaut training: former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson, who died in 2017.
“It’s a longstanding tradition of our company (from Orbital Sciences to Orbital ATK to Northrop Grumman) to name our Cygnus spacecraft after a space visionary or pioneer who advanced human spaceflight exploration,” Northrop Grumman’s Vicki Cox previously told AmericaSpace. The company remains understandably tight-lipped on whose name will fly with NG-14. But with former NASA Administrator James Beggs, “Hidden Figures” mathematical genius Katherine Johnson and Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden—the first human to perform a spacewalk outside Earth orbit—having all passed away in 2020, there is sadly no shortage of worthy volunteers.Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS »