Northrop Grumman Corp. is now aiming for 9:16 p.m. EDT tonight to launch its NG-14 Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS), following a scrub in the final minutes of Thursday evening’s countdown. Mounted atop a giant Antares 230+ booster on Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., the mission experienced a relatively benign countdown, despite a wayward boat in the launch danger area and an intermittent telemetry issue, before it was eventually called off in response to “an unknown problem” with a Ground Support Equipment (GSE) component.
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It marked yet another headache piled atop a snakebitten week which has now seen three rockets on the United States’ eastern seaboard stalled in their attempts to get off the ground. On Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., United Launch Alliance (ULA) worked tirelessly to get its triple-barreled Delta IV Heavy airborne on the highly secretive NROL-44 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, after more than a month of delays. But dreadful weather and lightning warnings in Florida put paid to two launch attempts early in the week, ahead of a dramatic abort at T-7 seconds on Wednesday evening.
Added to the list, a SpaceX Falcon 9 on historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), laden with a 60-strong batch of Starlink internet communications satellites, scrubbed due to weather on Monday morning, then suffered an abort at T-18 seconds on Thursday morning due to an “out-of-family” sensor issue.
Northrop Grumman, too, has been impacted both by weather and technical glitches. Originally targeting Tuesday at 10:27 p.m. EDT, the 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) Antares 230+ booster was trundled out of the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at MARS on 26 September and raised to the vertical on Pad 0A with its pretty seashore backdrop. Meanwhile, the NG-14 Cygnus cargo ship—named in honor of STS-107 astronaut Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, the first woman of Indian ancestry to fly into space—was transported to the HIF early in September and installed atop the rocket in its bullet-like payload fairing.
According to Northrop Grumman in comments recently provided to AmericaSpace, Cygnus missions are named “in honor of individuals who have contributed to the United States’ commercial space program or human space exploration in some way”. This tradition extends right back to the very start of the program, with the Cygnus/Antares product lines having previously come under the ownership of Orbital Sciences Corp., then Orbital ATK, Inc., and since 2018 Northrop Grumman. “Chawla was selected in honor of her prominent place in history as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space,” Northrop Grumman revealed in its 8 September announcement.
As such, she become the second member of shuttle Columbia’s final crew to be so recognized. In March 2016, STS-107 Commander Rick Husband was honored when the OA-6 Cygnus was named for him. In fact, all but three of of the 13 Cygnuses which have successfully reached orbit and delivered cargo to the ISS since September 2013 honored deceased veteran astronauts: six shuttle flyers, three Moonwalkers and dual recognition for “Original Seven” Project Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton. Others included unflown Apollo 1 hero Roger Chaffee, former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson and the first African-American candidate for astronaut training, Robert H. Lawrence.
But on 27 September, only a day after arrival at Pad 0A, Northrop Grumman revealed that the launch would slip until no sooner than 9:38 p.m. EDT on 1 October, due to predicted poor weather in the Wallops area. “An upper-level trough and associated frontal boundary will approach the region on 29 September, providing scattered showers and thunderstorms for much of the day,” it was noted. “A weak low will develop along the front near the Carolinas. That will enhance thunderstorm and heavy rain chances.”
It certainly appeared a wise decision, as weak high pressure was expected to bring reduced cloudiness and drier conditions ahead of Thursday night’s attempt. Predictions of good weather gradually increased from 70-percent-favorable to 90-percent-favorable by launch evening. And countdown operations, too, proceeded with little apparent incident. An intermittent telemetry issue in the final hour was cleared and a hold at T-11 minutes was called due to a wayward boat in the launch danger area. As as result of this latter concern, the clock was picked up again shortly after 9:30 p.m. EDT, tracking a revised T-0 at 9:43 p.m. EDT, right at the end of Thursday’s five-minute “window”.
But it was not to be. All was quiet on the countdown net in the final minutes, as Antares’ ordnance was armed and the booster was verified as fully fueled with its load of liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1”.
Then, at T-2 minutes and 40 seconds, the clock halted in response to what NASA described as “an unknown problem with a component of ground support equipment”. Since T-0 had already been realigned right at the end of Thursday’s window, this halt inevitably produced a scrub. It was noted that, “pending resolution” of the issue, the next potential launch attempt would take place at 9:16 p.m. EDT Friday.
As previously detailed by AmericaSpace, NG-14 will head uphill with a whopping 7,758 pounds (3,519 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies to the ISS for the incumbent Expedition 63 and forthcoming Expedition 64 crews. This total includes 2,683 pounds (1,217 kg) of science investigations, 1,874 pounds (850 kg) of crew supplies, 2,712 pounds (1,230 kg) of vehicle hardware, 333 pounds (151 kg) of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) equipment and 156 pounds (71 kg) of computer resources.
With an on-time launch on Friday night, Cygnus should arrive in the vicinity of the ISS early Monday morning, with Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy and Flight Engineer Ivan Vagner located in the station’s multi-windowed cupola. They will grapple the cargo ship with the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, after which ground controllers will oversee the maneuvering and physical berthing of the ship onto the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node. NG-14 will remain part of the ISS through mid-December, when it will be robotically detached for two weeks in autonomous free flight, prior to a destructive re-entry on 30 December.
Assuming NG-14 does fly at 9:16 p.m. EDT tonight, it is expected to be followed just 27 minutes later by a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. This marks only the third SpaceX flight of 2020 to launch atop a “new” Falcon 9 core, with B1062 expected to lift the fourth Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite into Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), about 12,550 miles (20,200 km) above the planet. The core is expected to return to an oceanic landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, about eight minutes after liftoff.Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS »