Cygnus Mission Set to Wrap Up Oct. 23; Shutdown Nonissue for Virginia Spaceport

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Updated at 10:40 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo capsule will wrap up its first mission to the international space station (ISS) Oct. 23, when the expendable spacecraft is set to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up along with a load of trash. 

Cygnus was launched Sept. 18 from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), a state-run facility located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. The craft has been berthed with the station’s Harmony node since Sept. 29 and will detach from the orbital outpost Oct. 22, Orbital said in an Oct. 11 online post. 

A few days after Cygnus burns up over the Pacific Ocean, Orbital will provide NASA with a report on the mission, on which basis the space agency will decide whether the Dulles, Va., company is ready to fly eight cargo delivery missions to ISS ordered in 2008 under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract.

Should NASA give Orbital the thumbs-up to begin those missions, the first could launch as soon as late December or early January. Preparation for that mission, according to the company and its landlords at MARS, will not be interrupted by the ongoing government shutdown.

“The Antares team is able to continue working on our systems during the shutdown,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said in an Oct. 8 email. “Apparently, the skeleton services available at Wallops are enough for our staff to access the facilities.”

The head of the state-run organization that owns and operates the coastal Virginia facility from which Orbital’s eight cargo resupply missions will launch said neither his organization nor the launch facility itself was affected by the federal government shutdown.

“There’s been no impact,” Dale Nash, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, told SpaceNews in an Oct. 8 phone interview. 

Nash said that between the authority and its subcontractors, about 60 people are working at MARS.

When the U.S. government shut down on Oct. 1 after Congress failed to enact a stopgap spending measure, more than 95 percent NASA’s roughly 18,000 civil servants were furloughed. Many NASA facilities across the country were closed, in some cases even locking out contractors who otherwise could have continued working.