CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A U.S. shipment of much-needed groceries and other astronaut supplies rocketed toward the International Space Station for the first time in months Sunday, reigniting NASA's commercial delivery service.
If the Orbital ATK capsule arrives at the space station Wednesday as planned, it will represent the first U.S. delivery since spring.
"Santa is on his way!" Tony Bruno, president of rocket maker United Launch Alliance, announced via Twitter.
More than anyone, perhaps, the six space station astronauts were thrilled. They managed to photograph the rising Cygnus from their windows as it sailed over the Atlantic. "Caught something good on the horizon," commander Scott Kelly reported in a tweet.
To NASA's relief, the weather cooperated after three days of high winds and cloudy skies that kept the Atlas V rocket firmly on the ground. Everything came together on the fourth launch attempt, allowing the unmanned Atlas to blast off in late afternoon with 7,400 pounds of space station cargo, not to mention some Christmas presents for the awaiting crew.
The Atlas soared through clouds and, 21 minutes later, ended up placing the Cygnus cargo carrier in the perfect orbit. Ecstatic launch controllers applauded, shook hands and hugged one another. The space station astronauts — two of them, including Kelly, deep into a one-year mission — have gone without American shipments since April. Two private companies contracted for more than $3.5 billion by NASA to replenish the 250-mile-high lab are stuck on Earth with grounded rockets. Orbital ATK bought the United Launch Alliance's rocket, the veteran Atlas V, for this supply mission.
Orbital's previous grocery run, its fourth, ended in a fiery explosion seconds after liftoff in October 2014. SpaceX, the other supplier, failed on launch in June, on its eighth trip.
Russia also lost a supply ship earlier this year.