NASA’s commercial space program returns to flight this week with one of its private cargo haulers, Orbital ATK, set to launch its first supply shipment to the International Space Station in more than 13 months.
Orbital plans to launch its Cygnus capsule carrying more than 7,000 pounds of space-station equipment and supplies from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday evening.
Though the company has launched satellites from the Cape, this will be Orbital’s first space-station resupply launch from there.
Orbital’s first three resupply missions were launched from Wallops Island, Va. But seconds after the last launch, on Oct. 28, 2014, Orbital’s rocket blew up, destroying it, a Cygnus and supplies.
This also will be the first launch attempt of any commercial resupply rocket to the space station since June, when a Falcon 9 used by NASA’s other private space station cargo hauler, SpaceX, also blew up. SpaceX also plans to get back to launching this year, though it has not set a date.
Until now, Orbital was using its own Antares rockets. But they had old-design Russian-made engines, and investigators determined that last year’s failure was caused by one of them. So while Orbital reworks the Antares, the company has switched to using United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets for this and the next mission. Those two rockets are going up from ULA’s Cape Canaveral launchpad, which is specially designed to handle Atlas V blast-offs.
The company hopes to use the Antares again by next spring, and that means a return to Wallops Island, where Orbital built a launchpad designed to handle those rockets.
“After the launch failure, our goal, and what we will achieve starting again in December, was to continue delivering cargo to the space station,” said Frank DeMauro, Orbital’s commercial resupply services program director and vice president of human spaceflight systems.