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Orbital Sciences Poised to Become Space Station Commercial Cargo Provider

The Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares/Cygnus rocket and cargo capsule was cleared Wednesday for a Sept. 17 lift off on a milestone demonstration re-supply mission to the six person International Space Station, following a NASA led flight readiness review.

Lift off of the two stage Antares rocket from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the Wallops Island Flight Facility onVirginia’sEastern Shoreis set for 11:16 a.m., EDT.

If successful, the mission will complete Orbital Sciences 5 1/2 year partnership with NASA to establish a second U. S. re-supply service to support the six person space station under the space agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.  An on time lift off will set the unpiloted Cygnus on a course to rendezvous with the station on Sept. 22 for delivery of 1,540 pounds of cargo, much of it food — which for the test flight is considered a non critical cargo.

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo carrier approaches the International Space Station in this artist's illustration. Illustration Credit/Orbital Sciences Corp


The mission plans calls for Cygnus to remain docked to the station for about 30 days. The cargo will be exchanged for station trash prior to the supply ship’s departure.  As Cygnus de-orbits, Orbital Sciences will join SpaceX as a regular commercial re-supply service provider for the space station.

NASA andDulles,Va., based Orbital Sciences signed a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services agreement in December 2008. The company is prepared to launch the first of eight missions agreed to under the NASA contract late this year, said Frank Culbertson, the company’s executive vice president.

NASA initiated the COTS program seven years ago to take on the cargo responsibilities shouldered by NASA’s space shuttle fleet until it was retired in 2011. SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., flew a comparable space station demonstration mission in March 2012 and subsequently launched two re-supply missions under the terms of a separate $1.6 million, 12 mission contract.

“We started the program with the vision that you would be able to go to a catalogue, or the Internet, and order a cargo delivery service to the International Space Station similar to what you could do with a global overnight package delivery service,” said Alan Lindenmoyer,

NASA’s COTS program manager. “Well it’s not exactly overnight year. But last year we came very close to seeing that vision become a reality with our first COTS mission partner,  SpaceX.  Now, here we are with the opportunity to re-enforce that capability with our second commercial partner. That vision is becoming a reality.”

The space agency is investing $288 million in the Orbital Sciences initiative, which features Antares as a new U. S. medium lift rocket.

SpaceX, which introduced the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier as its part of the COTS program, received $278 million from NASA for development activities.

As with Dragon, Cygnus must fly close enough to the station for astronauts on board to grapple the capsule with Canada’s 58-foot-long robot arm. Once grappled, Cygnus as was Dragon, will be berthed to the station’s U. S. segment Harmony module.

European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg will command the robot arm from a station’s Cupola observation deck.





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