by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Sept 18, 2013
Orbital Sciences Corp launched the first flight of its unmanned Cygnus cargo ship Wednesday to the International Space Station, as NASA forges ahead with its plan to privatize US space missions.
"This is just the beginning of what we can do to support human space flight," Orbital executive vice president Frank Culbertson, a retired NASA astronaut, told reporters after Cygnus went into orbit around the Earth.
The Cygnus capsule, hitched to Orbital Science's Antares rocket, blasted off at 10:58 am (1458 GMT) from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility off Virginia's eastern coast, for a Sunday rendezvous with the ISS.
At the orbiting outpost, the Exhibition 37 crew watched live video of the blast-off.
NASA released a photo showing Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and Flight Engineers Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano suspended due to the loss of gravity as they gathered around a laptop computer screen in the station's Destiny laboratory.
"Congrats @OrbitalSciences -- great launch! Excited for Cygnus arrival on Sunday!" Nyberg tweeted using her handle @AstroKarenN.
Cygnus separated from the rocket's second stage about 10 minutes after blast-off to reach Earth's orbit, marking the success of the launch. It later deployed both of its solar arrays, which will supply power to the spacecraft.
The payload separation was successful, a NASA commentator said on the US space agency's live television feed. Clapping could be heard at mission control.
"That was just a beautiful launch," a NASA commentator said.
"All going very smoothly with the continuing health of the spacecraft."
Cygnus will ferry about 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of food, clothing and other cargo for the crew aboard the space station, which it is scheduled to reach at 1130 GMT Sunday.
"Today marks a milestone in our new era of exploration as we expand the capability for making cargo launches to the International Space Station from American shores," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
"Orbital's extraordinary efforts are helping us fulfill the promise of American innovation to maintain our nation's leadership in space."
Parmitano, with help from Nyberg, will command the station's 57-foot (17-meter) robotic arm, Canadarm2, to reach out and grapple Cygnus ahead of the docking.
He will then use the arm to guide Cygnus to its docking port on the Earth-facing side of the station's Harmony node for installation.
The spacecraft, which was orbiting Earth at a speed of 17,500 miles (28,160 kilometers) per hour, will remain docked at the ISS for a month and the crew will reload it with trash for disposal when it departs.
Cygnus contains two basic components: the Service Module, produced by Orbital Sciences, and the Pressurized Cargo Module made by an affiliate of French group Thales and Italy's Finmeccanica.
Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA that requires the company to deliver freight to the ISS over the course of eight flights by the beginning of 2016.
The company is one of just two private US firms enlisted by NASA to carry payloads to the ISS. The other is California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.
NASA is eager to give private industry the job of carrying cargo and crews, in hopes of cutting costs, now that its space shuttle fleet has been retired.
The US space agency plans to focus its attention on deep-space missions to land probes on asteroids and Mars.
Wednesday's demonstration flight -- the first to the ISS by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences -- is meant to show that Cygnus can successfully deliver cargo to the space station.
If the test is successful, it could lead to regularly scheduled missions within months. Another Cygnus capsule is set to launch in December.
"Today's launch is the culmination of more than five years' work between the NASA and Orbital teams," said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's program manager for commercial crew and cargo.
"Everyone involved should be extremely proud, and we are looking forward to a successful series of checkouts between now and when Cygnus reaches the space station this weekend."
Orbital first launched its Antares rocket, carrying a dummy payload, on a successful trial flight in April.
Cygnus's docking with the ISS will mark the fourth of a private vessel to the orbiting outpost.
The first was SpaceX's Dragon capsule in May 2012. Dragon later made two more trips to deliver cargo to the ISS.
Unlike the Dragon capsule, Cygnus cannot return to Earth and will be destroyed upon re-entry after its mission is complete.
Orbital Sciences Corporation
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