There was a long running joke that the International Space Station existed only as a place for the shuttle to go. Whilst that joke ignores the fact that the ISS wasn’t just an American creation it was true that the Shuttle really only had a single destination for the last decade or so of its life. Still it was pretty damn good at its job, both in terms of delivering payloads and its ability to ferry large crews and its retirement left a large hole in launch capabilities that is still yet to be filled. There have been many alternatives popping up however and the second fully privately funded one, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, made its launch debut last week.
In terms of capabilities the Cygnus is very similar to the Russian Progress craft with the initial versions able to deliver a payload of 2,000kg to the ISS. This is scheduled to be bumped up to 2,700kg after the first 3 vehicles as the craft and its associated launcher will be upgraded, giving it more significantly more interior volume as well. Much like all the other ISS cargo craft it does not have an automated docking capability and needs to be captured by CANADARM2 before being guided to one of the station’s ports. Additionally the Cygnus does not have any capability to reboost the ISS whilst it is docked, something which seems to be uniquely confined to the ATV (although the Progress can do it if required), and does not have any down range capability meaning it burns up on re-entry.
The first Cygnus craft launched late last week after a technical glitch caused a one day delay whilst a fix was developed. The launch itself was trouble free and it spent the weekend catching up to the ISS for a scheduled rendezvous today. Unfortunately whilst the Cygnus was attempting to establish a direct data link with the ISS another glitch was encountered forcing it to abort the current docking attempt. This will delay any further attempts for another couple days due to the orbital mechanics involved but this will give Orbital Sciences enough time to create and test a fix so that the next attempt should be successful.
Just like SpaceX before it Orbital Sciences has a pretty aggressive schedule for successive flights with the next flight lined up for December this year and 3 to follow in 2014. Considering their pedigree with multiple launch systems under their belt this is somewhat expected but it’s still quite amazing to see just how quickly these private companies can move when compared to previous governmental based efforts. It will be interesting to see if they ever adapt the Cygnus to be a human rated craft as whilst they’ve never launched people before they’ve got much of the expertise needed to do so.
It’s great to see that NASA’s COTS program is doing so well, producing results that many believed would be impossible. Whilst they still haven’t bridged the launch capability gap that the Shuttle has left behind they’ve already demonstrated one major part of it and I know it won’t be long before the crewed capability is restored. I’m hopeful that this will enable NASA to continue focusing on the real envelope pushing ideas to further our capabilities in space, leaving the more rudimentary aspects of it to the private market. The future of private space travel is looking brighter by the day and I’m glad Orbital Sciences, with their incredible pedigree of delivering on space projects, has come along for the ride.