SEATTLE — A Cygnus cargo spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station after an Aug. 1 launch as part of NASA’s commitment to “full throttle” use of the station through the end of the decade.
An Antares 230+ rocket lifted off at 8:31 p.m. Eastern from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, placing a Cygnus spacecraft into orbit. The Cygnus, named “S.S. Laurel Clark” after the astronaut who died on the STS-107 shuttle mission two decades ago, is scheduled to arrive at the station early Aug. 4.
The NG-19 mission is carrying 3,785 kilograms of cargo. That includes 1,590 kilograms of crew supplies, 1,128 kilograms of scientific payloads and 948 kilograms of vehicle hardware. The spacecraft will remain at the station for at least three months before departing with trash to be disposed through destructive reentry.
The launch was the final flight of the current version of the Antares rocket, designated Antares 230+, which uses a first stage built by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye State Design Office and Yuzhmash Machine Building plant and RD-181 engines from Russian company NPO Energomash. Northrop Grumman announced nearly a year ago plans to develop a new first stage in partnership with Firefly Aerospace. That vehicle, called Antares 330, is now scheduled to make its debut in mid-2025.
Northrop will continue to fly Cygnus missions while Antares 330 is in development using SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The first of three Cygnus missions launched on Falcon 9, NG-20, is scheduled for late this year.
The NG-19 launch coincided with the International Space Station Research and Development Conference (ISSRDC) here. Attendees cheered on the launch — literally — at NASA’s booth in the conference’s exhibit hall after the end of the first day of sessions.
The research payloads on NG-19 are evidence, station officials said at the conference, of NASA’s commitment to fully utilize the station through its currently scheduled retirement in 2030.
“Station’s top priority is science and research,” said Dana Weigel, NASA ISS deputy program manager, in a speech at the conference. “We plan to fully utilize ISS all the way through the end of 2030. That means full throttle operations, science, research, technology development through the end of 2030.”
That schedule holds as NASA works with industry to support development of commercial space stations that will ultimately succeed the ISS. NASA issued funded Space Act Agreements in late 2021 to teams led by Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and Voyager Space to support initial design work on station concepts. A fourth company, Axiom Space, has an agreement with NASA to install commercial modules on the ISS as a precursor to a commercial station.
The goal remains, she said, to enable a “seamless transition” from the ISS to those commercial stations at the end of the decade. Nagging doubts, though, remain about the ability of companies to have stations ready in time.
“They will get there, but it will not be easy,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the ISS at Boeing, of commercial space station developers in remarks at the conference. Such stations, he said, “are the future of LEO following the ISS mission, and we need to allow them to follow their natural development cycle.”
Boeing is a partner on Orbital Reef, one commercial station effort led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space. That station is intended to be ready in a “baseline” configuration by the end of the decade with 90% of the volume of the ISS, said Liz Warren, director of research development at Blue Origin, during an ISSRDC presentation.
Research will be a major focus of Orbital Reef, she said, along with tourism, manufacturing and other applications. “We’re deep in the design phase right now,” she said, including examining both the ability to support existing research facilities on the ISS and developing next-generation research capabilities.
The NG-19 mission is directly supporting work on Orbital Reef, she said. Samples of the material Blue Origin plans to use for large windows in the station’s core module are going to the station on the Cygnus for an external experiment platform called the Materials ISS Experiment (MISSE) Flight Facility. “It will do some materials testing for us,” she said, including how the window material handles the temperature and radiation environment of space, “validating some of our ideas there.”