CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The last time a Cygnus took flight for the International Space Station more than a year ago, the supply ship never had a chance to spread its wings.
Engines on the Antares rocket below it failed seconds after lifting off from Virginia’s Eastern Shore in October 2014, causing the rocket and spacecraft to fall back to the ground with a giant ka-boom.
Images of the inferno made national news.
The Cygnus now stands ready to fly again, this time perched atop an Atlas V rocket targeting a 5:55 p.m. blastoff Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41.
“We are very proud to be back in this position of getting ready to launch supplies to the International Space Station again,” said Frank Culbertson, president of the Space Systems Group at Orbital ATK, which developed the Cygnus and Antares. “It’s been a challenge to get back to this point.”
Air Force meteorologists predict a 60% chance of favorable weather, with thick clouds and showers potentially posing threats during the 30-minute launch window.
The mission is the first of two Cygnus flights that United Launch Alliance will carry on its highly reliable Atlas V rocket, which is launching for the 60th time, while Orbital ATK re-fits its own Antares launcher with new main engines.
Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance pulled this flight together within a year of first discussing a partnership, enabling the Cygnus to return to flight months before the Antares could be ready.
Packed with more than 7,000 pounds of food, spare parts and science experiments, the Cygnus returns for its fourth flight (not counting the failure) in an
“enhanced” version that can carry more cargo and sports a new type of solar arrays for generating power.
If it launches Thursday, the silver, cylindrical Cygnus would be expected to berth Sunday at the International Space Station, returning there for the first time since July of last year.
The space station orbiting 250 miles up is still rebounding from a string of resupply failures that began with the failed Antares-Cygnus launch. A Russian Progress ship was lost months later, and a SpaceX Dragon capsule ended up in the ocean after a Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated in June.
Supplies have arrived safely since then, but none launched from the U.S. The station now has enough food to last into April, below the five- or six-month margin NASA would prefer to have.
“We’re not where we’d really like to be relative to our consumables, but it’s not a critical situation at all,” said Kirk Shireman, manager of NASA’s space station program.
More pressing, perhaps, are shortages of certain spare parts, such as a spacesuit jet pack and tanks of high-pressure oxygen and nitrogen to recharge station supplies that haven’t been topped off since the last shuttle mission in 2011.
The Cygnus, named in honor of Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton, also will deliver some holiday cheer to the station’s six-person crew.
“I’m guessing that Santa’s sleigh is somewhere inside the Cygnus,” Culbertson said. “They’re probably excited about their stockings coming up, too.”
The Cygnus mission will enable dozens of science experiments supporting NASA’s exploration goals and educational and commercial applications, some sponsored by the Brevard County, Fla.-based non-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which manages the station’s National Lab.
Those projects include several small satellites that will be deployed from the station.
A NASA pair will test communications between “swarms” of small spacecraft.
Astronauts will assemble another satellite designed as a precursor to low-cost, modular spacecraft that could be built robotically in orbit.
Five schools that lost experiments on the last Cygnus will see their work flown again.
And a CubeSat measuring four inches on a side will be the first designed, built and flown by elementary school students, according to Eleanor McCormack, principal of St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Virginia.
The tiny satellite dubbed “Mission Possible” carries a camera and crucifix with a medallion blessed by Pope Francis. About 100 students and parents from the school are in town to watch the launch.
They know from the events of the past year or so that rocket launches are a risky business.
Asked what her students had done to ensure a flawless flight to the station, McCormack replied, “Lots of prayers, to start with.”
Follow James Dean on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean
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