Editorial | Orbital Makes Good with Cygnus

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All but lost amid the latest outbreak of political insanity in Washington was an important milestone in NASA’s effort to commercialize human spaceflight and related operations in low Earth orbit: the Sept. 29 berthing of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo capsule with the international space station.

The accomplishment stands out in stark contrast to the entrenched fecklessness of the U.S. Congress, in particular the House of Representatives, which orchestrated a paralyzing federal government shutdown that has hit NASA especially hard. More than 90 percent of the space agency’s 18,000-strong workforce has been forced on unpaid furlough.

Thankfully, NASA — with no help from Capitol Hill — found a way to resume preparations for the planned November launch of a $670 million Mars mission that had been temporarily halted by the shutdown. Had it missed this launch opportunity, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission would have had to wait two more years for its next window, and its scientific return would have been diminished owing to the cyclical dynamics of the martian atmosphere.

Congress’ failure to pass a simple spending bill to keep the government running represents yet another dereliction of duty for a group that seems to never miss an opportunity to sink to a new low. Among the ironic injustices of it all is that while the vast majority of NASA employees are having their paychecks clipped, these so-called lawmakers will continue to draw their handsome, taxpayer-funded salaries.

While Washington’s politicians were busy slinging mud, however, astronauts aboard the space station were unloading 589 kilograms of food and other supplies delivered by Orbital, now the second company to demonstrate a commercial logistics service for the orbital outpost. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) accomplished the feat in 2012 and has since made two paid cargo runs to the station. Orbital is now poised to begin making its own deliveries under its Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. 

The berthing is further validation of NASA’s low Earth orbit outsourcing strategy, which extends to ferrying astronaut crews to and from the station starting a few years from now. Success in the Commercial Crew Program ultimately will depend on Congress’ providing the appropriate funding of course, and that’s a big “if” in this day and age.

Orbital’s road, like SpaceX’s, has not always been pretty or smooth. Both demonstration efforts, funded by NASA’s $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, cost more and took longer than planned. Orbital had to overcome not only the usual difficulties in developing a brand new rocket but also missteps by the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority, which oversaw construction of the vehicle’s launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

The new rocket, dubbed Antares, was making only its second flight when it lifted off from Wallops Sept. 18 carrying Cygnus for the first time. The berthing with station was delayed by about a week, first by a communications software glitch and then to make room for the Sept. 25 arrival of a new astronaut crew aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

With the most difficult part of the mission completed — Cygnus’ next task is to depart the space station and make a controlled but destructive descent into the atmosphere — NASA now has two space station resupply services at its disposal. That translates into a more robust and flexible capability for NASA and reduced dependence on Russia.

This is good news, regardless of the surrounding chaos. Congress can steal the headlines with its latest march of folly, but it cannot take away this important achievement for Orbital and for NASA.