Orbital Launches Space Station Resupply Mission From Virginia Spaceport

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-09-23 Print this article Print

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.—The newly enhanced Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport hosted its second major launch in less than two weeks as Orbital Sciences and NASA sent off a commercial supply mission to the International Space Station on Sept 18. This was the largest commercial payload ever to take off from this spaceport near Washington, D.C., and the first using the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft. Antares is a liquid-fueled rocket that burns kerosene and liquid oxygen, resulting in a takeoff that's different from the spectacle of the faster solid fuel rocket launches. Antares rose majestically, gathering momentum gradually as the launch vehicle overcame the weight of its fuel to rise steadily into space. The perfect weather at the Virginia launch site combined with a nearly flawless takeoff to place Cygnus into an orbit after only a few minutes to catch up with the Space Station. But there's more to a spaceflight than simply rolling out a rocket and pushing a button. Here's the story of how this launch came to be.

  • Orbital Launches Space Station Resupply Mission From Virginia Spaceport

    by Wayne Rash
    1 - Orbital Launches Space Station Resupply Mission From Virginia Spaceport
  • Loading the Supplies

    Engineers from Orbital Sciences load the supplies that will be carried to the Space Station into the Cygnus spacecraft. Nearly 1,500 pounds of supplies ranging from food and clothing to science experiments are placed inside the spacecraft before it's sealed for delivery to the Space Station. This spacecraft is named "Spaceship G. David Low" in honor of the former astronaut and Orbital executive who died in 2005. Photo: Orbital Sciences Corp.
    2 - Loading the Supplies
  • Mating Season for Antares and Cygnus

    Once Cygnus is loaded with supplies, the spacecraft, along with its rocket thrusters is mated to the Antares launch vehicle in an assembly building at Wallops Island. Here, the two vehicles are joined for the first time and technicians run an initial systems check of the entire assembly. They are held together with frangible rings that readily break free for staging after launch. When this is finished, the combined spacecraft will be rolled out to the launch pad. Photo: Orbital Sciences Corp.
    3 - Mating Season for Antares and Cygnus
  • Rolling Out the Launch Vehicle

    The fully prepared Antares launch vehicle with Cygnus attached is loaded on a transporter and rolled out to Launch Pad 0A on Wallops Island. This is the same launch pad that held the Minotaur V spacecraft a few days before when it was sent on a lunar mission. The rollout took place a week before the launch date. Photo: Orbital Sciences Corp.
    4 - Rolling Out the Launch Vehicle
  • Everything in Its Proper Place

    It's the morning after the rollout, and Orbital starts the process of putting Antares and Cygnus on to the newly renovated Launch Pad 0A. The launch of the Minotaur V to the moon a few days before required that maintenance teams quickly clean the launch pad and repair any damage. The launch pad, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, is designed for this sort of quick turnaround, something most other launch facilities can't do. Photo: Orbital Sciences Corp.
    5 - Everything in Its Proper Place
  • Making the Final Pre-Flight Check-Out

    Engineers and technicians work to perform the final checks before the Sept. 18 launch of Antares and Cygnus to the International Space Station. The final pre-flight checks revealed only a broken communications cable, which was quickly replaced. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
    6 - Making the Final Pre-Flight Check-Out
  • Antares Is Ready for Launch

    Now it's the morning before the launch as the sun rises over Virginia's eastern shore highlighting a new commercial spacecraft that's passed all of its system tests and is waiting for the final orders to launch into space and travel to the International Space Station. The launch was delayed by a day because of weather and a failed communications cable. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
    7 - Antares Is Ready for Launch
  • The Countdown Begins

    Antares waits on Launch Pad 0A as the final countdown begins at Wallops Island. The countdown was briefly interrupted while a video system was rebooted, but the delay lasted only a few minutes. Photo: Wayne Rash/eWEEK
    8 - The Countdown Begins
  • And We Have Liftoff

    Antares completes its ignition sequence and flame erupts slowly at first beneath the rocket; then the hold-down bolts release, and the ascent begins slowly at first as Antares gathers its strength as it eases into the sky. This is when the sound hits you, and despite efforts by the engineers to control the noise, it consumes everything but the sight of the spacecraft lifting on a pillar of fire. Photo: Wayne Rash/eWEEK
    9 - And We Have Liftoff
  • Antares Heads for the International Space Station

    Antares rises into the atmosphere gathering speed as it shakes off the grip of Earth heading for its rendezvous with the Space Station. Photo: Wayne Rash/eWEEK
    10 - Antares Heads for the International Space Station
  • The Second Stage Ignites to Boost Cygnus Into Orbit

    It's a few minutes after launch, and the fuel in the first stage of Antares is exhausted. The first stage separates from the second stage, leaving a smoke ring in its wake as the second stage solid rocket booster ignites to take the spacecraft the rest of the way into orbit. There was a five-second delay between the staging and when the second stage ignites to allow the stage to be released and to drop clear. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
    11 - The Second Stage Ignites to Boost Cygnus Into Orbit
  • An Optimal Flight

    An hour after Antares reaches orbit, NASA and Orbital hold a press conference to let us all know that the launch was as close to perfect as launches get. Seated from left to right before a photo of the launch are NASA Public Affairs Officer Josh Byerly, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Manager Alan Lindenmoyer and Orbital Executive Vice President and former Space Station Commander and Astronaut Frank Culbertson. Culbertson noted that the orbit achieved by Cygnus was "about two kilometers" higher than expected. Photo: Wayne Rash /eWEEK
    12 - An Optimal Flight
  • Exit Left to the Space Station

    When the same agency that is responsible for a state's highways also runs its spaceport, the two personalities sometimes merge. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport belongs to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which also maintains the state's highway. So naturally, there needs to be an exit sign on the highway. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
    13 - Exit Left to the Space Station

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