CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s newest delivery service made its first shipment to the International Space Station on Sunday, another triumph for the booming commercial space arena that has its sights set on launching astronauts.
Orbital Sciences Corp.’s unmanned cargo ship, the Cygnus, pulled up at the orbiting lab with a half-ton of meals and special treats for the station astronauts who assisted in the high-flying feat.
With the smooth linkup, Orbital Sciences of Virginia became only the second company to accomplish such a far-flung shipment. The California-based SpaceX company took the lead last year.
Applause could be heard in Mission Control once Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano grabbed hold of Cygnus with the space station’s hulking mechanical arm. The union occurred 260 miles above the Indian Ocean. Before long, the capsule was latched securely to the orbiting lab. Its hatch will remain closed until early today; that’s when the six station astronauts will enter the capsule and begin unloading the bounty.
The successful arrival means Orbital Sciences can start making good on a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for more Cygnus deliveries, each one carrying more and more cargo. The next one could fly by Christmas.
Sunday’s operation culminated several years of effort for Orbital Sciences, which was hired by NASA along with SpaceX – formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – to keep the space station well-stocked in this post-shuttle era.
SpaceX has been launching its supply ships, called Dragon, from Cape Canaveral for more than a year. It’s also working on a possible manned capsule that would ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station, rather than having them hitch rides on Russian rockets.
Unlike the SpaceX Dragon that can return items to Earth, the Cygnus is designed to burn up upon descent. Once unloaded of its 1,300 pounds worth of food, clothes and other items, it will be filled with trash and cut loose on Oct. 22. That’s how the Russian, European and Japanese supply ships end up as well: self-destructing garbage cans.