An American commercial supply craft successfully lifted off from America’s Space Coast on Sunday beginning a nearly three day voyage en route to resupply the International Space Station.
The 60th flight of the Atlas V rocket also marked America’s return to space station resupply missions following two separate launch failures by NASA’s competing commercial partners SpaceX and Orbital ATK. Today’s Orbital ATK mission began from the Florida beaches of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station instead of the tragic explosion last year one hundred feet above a Wallops Island, Virginia launch pad.
The Atlas launch team were overwhelmed by three consecutive days of launch scrubs due to rains, low clouds and high winds. Sunday’s sunny afternoon turned to gray, overcast skies as the countdown neared zero with ground winds the primary concern.
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus supply ship launched on time at 4:44:57 p.m. EST, a top a United Launch Alliance Atlas V and punching a hole through a thick layer of clouds as the vehicle began its northeasterly track to its port-of-call.
“We had a perfect orbit injection — really right on the money,” Orbital ATK Manager of Cargo Resupply Frank DeMauro said late Sunday. “Everything’s looking great. The power system’s healthy; the propulsion system is healthy; we’re flying a good spacecraft. It was good to see the rocket head up there and put us exactly on target.”
At the time of lift-off, the football field-size space station was 252 miles over north Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda. Astronauts aboard the orbiting complex viewed the launch live on their laptop computers from inside the Cupola 360-degree observatory.
Loaded with 7,380 pounds of fresh supplies and hardware, including science experiments, food, water and fuel, Cygnus separated from the Atlas’ Centaur upper stage at a precise moment in space at 5:06 p.m. Eighty minutes later, the craft’s twin UltraFlex solar arrays had been fully deployed.
The craft carries the name S.S. Deke Slayton II, in honor of one of NASA’s first Mercury astronauts who eventually waited until 1975 to fly in space due to a heart ailment. The first Slayton craft was the name of the last Cygnus to launch on the ill-fated October 2014 launch.
The cargo freighter is bringing a new set of improved breathable air tanks loaded with oxygen and nitrogen for installation into the station’s air supply system. A new light weight jet backpack astronauts will wear outside the space station is also aboard the arriving cargo ship. The Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue, or SAFER, is designed to allow a spacewalking astronaut a means to return to the spacecraft in the event their tether becomes detached.
NASA and Microsoft have also placed aboard Cygnus a beta version pair of HoloLens. The computer goggles were developed to give an astronaut an extra set of eyes via Skype so that an Earth bound engineer can see what the station crew member sees in realtime.
“HoloLens and other virtual and mixed reality devices are cutting edge technologies that could help drive future exploration and provide new capabilities to the men and women conducting critical science on the International Space Station,” Sam Scimemi, Director of NASA ISS Program explained from Washington. “This new technology could also empower future explorers requiring greater autonomy on the journey to Mars.”
Cygnus is due to link up with the orbital outpost on Wednesday, as NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren use the station’s 57-foot robotic arm to snare the spacecraft at 6:10 a.m., and slowly guide it in for docking. The supply craft is scheduled to dock two hours later to the Earth-facing port of the Unity module.
“Wednesday will be the berthing day for Orbital ATK’s Cygnus following today’s flawless liftoff ,” NASA Spokesperson Steven Siceloff said moments before launch. “With its solar arrays deployed for power production, the Cygnus will fly autonomously to catch up to the station as ground controllers maintain a close watch from Earth.”