Orbital's new Cygnus cargo ship starts a demonstration trip to the International Space Station.
The space shuttle was a fantastic orbital vehicle that could perform an immense variety of tasks, among them were its many visits to the ISS. The shuttle could not only carry crew but had a cargo hold big enough for supplies, equipment and even new sections of the space station. But with the retirement of the iconic craft, NASA has turned to outsourcing the more basic needs of the station to the private sector. Those efforts have culminated in two privately funded projects aiming to take over the supply of cargo from the american government, the second of those blasting off earlier this morning.
The Cygnus commercial cargo ship, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC), blasted off at 10:58 local time on a demonstrative flight to the ISS. The purpose of this trip is to show NASA the merits of its new vessel in performing resupply missions on behalf of the American Government. As such, NASA has a series of practice maneuvers for Cygnus to perform in order to ensure the ship poses no threat to the ISS in close proximity. The journey will take approximately 4 days and, if all goes well, Cygnus should park itself below the orbiting lab on Sunday. At this point, the astronauts on board will use the station's robotic arm to grab the capsule and bring it in to dock with an unused port. The unloading of the 700kg cargo of food and equipment will begin on Monday with the pod being filled in return with the station's rubbish to be burned up in Earth's atmosphere.
OSC isn't the first company to reach the ISS, SpaceX has already secured a $1.6bn contract for 12 flights and has performed several resupply missions using its Dragon capsule. If this demonstration is successful, OSC will secure a $1.9bn contract for 8 deliveries. NASA is very happy with its current private sector investments: "You never want to be put in a situation where, if there's a problem with one of the suppliers, you don't have the ability to continue with your re-supply chain to the space station." Says Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the agency's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. "That's why we intentionally designed our program to have at least two companies, certainly in the development and demonstration phase. And then we were fortunate enough to award contracts to both [SpaceX and Orbital]."
With this transition of responsibility, not dissimilar to a company outsourcing its IT or human resources requirements, NASA has freed up some of its efforts to focus instead on other projects. With other private sector endeavors around the globe heading outside our atmosphere, such as Virgin Galactic's space tourism, space travel is slipping ever closer into the reach of the general public!