Thirteen may be unlucky for some, but Tuesday night’s 13th and final launch of an Antares 200-series booster from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., proved a charm as it brought down the curtain on a remarkable half-decade of space station resupply operations. Northrop Grumman Corp.’s 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) rocket took flight from ocean-hugging Pad 0A on the Virginia Coast at 8:31:14 p.m. EDT, powering into the darkness and kicking off a two-and-a-half-day transit to the International Space Station (ISS) with more than 8,200 pounds (3,700 kilograms) of equipment, payloads and supplies for the Expedition 69 crew.
As noted yesterday in AmericaSpace’s NG-19 preview, the workhorse Antares lifted the latest Cygnus cargo ship for an anticipated three months as part of the sprawling orbital complex. Early Friday, Expedition 69 astronaut Warren “Woody” Hoburg and Frank Rubio—both stationed in the multi-windowed cupola—will grapple Cygnus using the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm and “berth” it at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node.
The pair spent significant time earlier this week working on robotics practice training for this critical task and Rubio also consolidated food stores ahead of NG-19’s arrival. According to the current timeline, Hoburg will grapple Cygnus—which is named in honor of Dr. Laurel Clark, a Navy flight surgeon, deep-sea diver and crew member on shuttle Columbia’s final voyage, STS-107 in early 2003—at 5:55 a.m. EDT Friday, for berthing under the command of ground controllers about two hours later.
Honoring Clark in this fashion continues a longstanding Cygnus tradition, which has seen each cargo ship named for a figure who played a significant role in human space exploration. Prior honorees included Challenger’s Ellison Onizuka, Columbia’s Rick Husband and Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, moonwalkers Gene Cernan, John Young and Al Bean and Apollo 1’s Roger Chaffee.
Added to that list are five other shuttle flyers, legendary “Original Seven” Mercury and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) astronaut Deke Slayton, “Hidden Figures” mathematician Katherine Johnson, former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson and Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) astronaut selectee Robert Lawrence. Most recently, the NG-18 Cygnus—launched last November—offered a nod to America’s first woman in space, astronaut Sally Ride.
Clark thus becomes the third STS-107 veteran to be honored with a Cygnus name. “We bonded over our shared Midwestern roots and fond connection to Scotland,” said Clark’s former classmate, astronaut Dan Tani, who now serves as Northrop Grumman’s director of business development. “I remember, as a new mother herself, Laurel naturally took on a maternal role in our class, always looking out for everyone else and making sure we were all doing well.”
Hardware for the NG-19 mission began to come together in early April when the Cygnus spacecraft was transported to Wallops for fueling. Last month, its payloads were installed and it was encapsulated in the bullet-like fairing of the Antares 230+ rocket, before rolling out to Pad 0A last Friday.
Prior to Tuesday night’s launch, Hoburg and Rubio brushed up on their robotics skills, practicing Cygnus capture techniques on a laptop computer and reviewed the incoming vehicle’s approach and rendezvous. Although both men have previously participated in cargo ship operations—and Rubio was aboard the ISS last November for the most recent Cygnus arrival—this is the first occasion that either have been actively involved in a robotic capture and berthing.
Weather conditions for liftoff of the Antares 230+ booster from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island was predicted to be 80-percent-favorable. That probability improved markedly to 90 percent as Tuesday unfolded, with the only meteorological concern of note centering around the presence of cumulus clouds.
Early Tuesday, engineers and flight controllers came to their consoles at Wallops to begin powering up Antares and chilling its propellant systems with liquid nitrogen. Tanking was critically timed to adhere to temporal limits associated with the rapid boil-off of the rocket’s cryogenic oxygen supply.
A final poll of flight controllers occurred in two phases and by T-15 minutes the propellant tanks had reached their required flight pressures and were verified at “Flight Ready” levels. Shortly afterwards, the rocket transitioned to internal power and at T-11 minutes the Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) was armed to effect a rapid retraction when countdown clocks hit T-0.
Fed by a mixture of liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1”, Antares took flight at 8:31:14 p.m. EDT, heading on a southeasterly flight path out over the Atlantic Ocean. The first stage’s pair of Russian-built RD-181 engines powered the booster smoothly uphill into the Virginia darkness, burning fiercely for 200 seconds, before shutting down on time at an altitude of 52.3 miles (84.1 kilometers).
The first stage separated shortly thereafter, followed by the rocket’s bullet-like payload fairing and inter-stage. This was followed by ignition of Antares’ solid-fueled Castor-30XL upper stage motor at 8:36 p.m. EDT, which burned for two minutes and 44 seconds to propel Cygnus into low-Earth orbit. The point of orbital insertion was estimated at an altitude of 109.5 miles (176.2 kilometers). Two minutes after burnout of the Castor-30XL motor, some nine minutes after leaving Earth, Cygnus was separated into free flight to commence its two-day trek to the ISS.
With tonight’s launch, Cygnus approaches a full decade of operations delivering equipment, payloads and supplies to successive ISS crews. Following Antares’ maiden test flight in April 2013, it first carried a “real” Cygnus the following September and has since ferried over 130,000 pounds (59,000 kilograms) of supplies to the space station and returned more than 91,000 pounds (41,250 kilograms) of trash and unneeded materials to a harmless destructive re-entry. Cygnuses have also benefited from “late-load” capabilities for particularly sensitive payloads, supported ISS reboosts and executed a multitude of secondary experiments, including several Spacecraft Fire Safety (SAFFIRE) investigations.
Tonight’s spectacular launch marked the 13th and final flight of an Antares 200-series booster since October 2016 and the eighth and last voyage of the uprated 230+ variant since it first entered service in November 2019. Northrop Grumman last August contracted with Cedar Park, Texas-based Firefly Aerospace to develop a new first-stage upgrade, known as the Antares 330, which will enter service in early 2025.Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS »