Orbital Becomes 2nd U. S. Company to Reach International Space Station with Resupply Capsule

September 29th, 2013

Orbital Sciences unpiloted Cygnus capsule successfully rendezvoused with the International Space Station early Sunday, signaling the Dulles, Va., firm is prepared to shoulder future re-supply responsibilities for the six person orbiting laboratory.

Astronauts Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg, of the European Space Agency and NASA, grappled Cygnus with the station’s Canadian robot arm as it moved within 12 meters of the station at 7 a.m., EDT. They maneuvered the capsule, with its 1,543 pound cargo of crew provisions and research gear, to the station’s U. S. segment Harmony module at 8:44 a.m., EDT, where it will remain berthed for about 30 days.

Space station astronauts nab commercial resupply capsule with Canada's robot arm. Photo Credit/NASA TV.

The rendezvous and berthing fulfill the dynamic phase of an Orbital demonstration mission carried out under a $288 million more than five year old NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program agreement.  The mission qualifies Orbital to begin regular re-supply missions to the station under a $1.9 billion, eight flight Commercial Re-supply Services contract signed with NASA in late 2008.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who monitored Sunday’s activities from Orbital’s Dulles flight control room, extended his congratulations.

“They’ve done perfectly on all of their achievements,” added Courtenay McMillian, the NASA flight director who orchestrated the flight planning and some changes. “They nailed it.”

Cygnus launched Sept. 18 atop an Orbital Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia and embarked on what was to be a Sept. 22 rendezvous. Hours ahead of the encounter, however, the capsule and station experienced a mismatch during a GPS navigation data exchange.

NASA and Orbital announced a one day delay, then a longer postponement to await the Sept. 25 launch and docking of a Russian Soyuz crew transport with three new space station astronauts.

Sunday’s second rendezvous attempt went much smoother thanks to a one line software patch up linked to the capsule and checked out during the postponement. Parmitano and Nyberg grappled the capsule early with the station’s Canadian robot arm and accomplished the berthing well ahead of schedule.

Orbital is poised to join SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., as NASA’s second commercial supply service.  SpaceX carried out a similar demonstration mission in May 2012 and plans to launch its third contracted cargo flight early next year.

The cargo duties were once handed by NASA’s space shuttle fleet.