After waiting out Florida’s weather for three days, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lofted supplies to the International Space Station today for the first time ever.
The Atlas rose from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:44 p.m. ET (1:44 p.m. PT), sending Orbital ATK’s uncrewed Cygnus crew capsule into orbit. The space station’s commander, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, watched the launch from orbit.
Among the record-setting 7,700 pounds’ worth of supplies, experiments and hardware on board are two of Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality headsets. Once they arrive, the station’s astronauts will try them out as wearable aids for in-space operations.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) December 6, 2015
The headsets and other supplies were supposed to be sent up on a SpaceX resupply mission in June – but that mission failed when a faulty support strut broke loose on the Falcon 9 rocket, causing a catastrophic breakup.
That was the second big setback for NASA’s commercial resupply pipeline. In October 2014, a Cygnus shipment was lost when Orbital’s Antares rocket failed due to flaws in one of its Russian-made engines.
To cope with that engine flaw, Orbital ATK had to retool its propulsion system for the Antares. And to keep up with NASA’s planned resupply schedule, the company had to buy a couple of Atlas 5 launches from United Launch Alliance. That’s the reason for the rocket’s debut today as a launch vehicle for space station resupply.
— ULA (@ulalaunch) December 6, 2015
“It’s great to be back in space and have Cygnus up there,” Frank Culbertson, president of Obital ATK’s Space Systems Group, told reporters afterward.
Like Orbital ATK’s Antares, ULA’s Atlas makes use of Russian engines, but it’s proven to be a reliable rocket for a wide variety of missions – most recently to put an advanced GPS satellite into orbit for the U.S. Air Force. Thanks to the capacities of the rocket and a super-sized Cygnus capsule, this is the heaviest Atlas 5 payload ever put into orbit, and the biggest U.S. cargo shipment to the space station since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
Atlas rockets are slated to send Boeing’s CRS-100 Starliner space taxi to the space station with astronauts aboard, starting as early as 2017. SpaceX, meanwhile, plans to use the Falcon 9 and an upgraded version of its Dragon capsule to carry astronauts in a similar time frame.
This week’s launch faced a couple of postponements due to weather: On Thursday, rain clouds forced a scrub. On Friday and Saturday, the winds were too blustery. But today, the Atlas 5 carried the Cygnus through cloudy skies and into space at last.
This Cygnus capsule has been named the SS Deke Slayton II, in honor of the late Mercury (and Apollo-Soyuz) astronaut. (Deke Slayton I was the capsule destroyed last year.) It’s due to reach the station for grappling and berthing on Wednesday. Over the weeks that follow, the station’s crew will unload a wide range of cargo.
The HoloLens headsets are part of an experiment called Project Sidekick: Eventually, NASA may use the glorified goggles to help ground operators see what astronauts are seeing as they go about their tasks. In augmented-reality mode, wearers will be able to see computer-generated holographic images superimposed on their field of view as a training aid.
Other payloads include a jetpack that astronauts can wear as a safety aid during spacewalks, an experiment that will test flame retardants and fire-resistant materials for use in space, a new life-science lab and more than a dozen CubeSats for deployment, plus air supply tanks, food and personal items for the crew.
Due to the launch failures of the past 14 months, the station’s food stockpile had dwindled from NASA’s recommended six-month supply to just a couple of months’ worth of reserves. Cygnus’ delivery will help – but it could take as long as a year to replenish the stockpile fully.
Seven books for kids were flown up as well, including two “Mousetronaut” books written by retired astronaut Mark Kelly. Mark’s twin brother, Scott, is more than halfway through a yearlong tour of duty on the space station – and he may well read at least one of the books to kids on Earth as part of a project called “Story Time From Space.”
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) December 5, 2015
Cygnus’ launch is just the beginning of a busy few weeks at the space station: Three crew members are due to ride a Russian Soyuz space taxi back down to Earth on Dec. 11, and three fresh spacefliers are scheduled for liftoff from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 15.
Less than a week later, on Dec. 21, Russia will send up a robotic Progress cargo craft. In January, SpaceX is set to launch an uncrewed Dragon capsule to the station for the first time since June’s failure.