Stakes high for Antares' return flight at Wallops

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- What's at stake Sunday night when NASA and Orbital ATK launch their first rocket at Wallops Flight Facility in nearly two years?

A whole lot.

If the five launch delays dating back to May are any indication, engineers are making especially sure everything goes right this time around. They don't want a repeat of the fiery explosion that happened just after takeoff nearly two years ago on the same launch pad.

Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK's space systems group president, said he isn't anxious about the return to flight.

“However, it is a launch," he said. "Any of us who have been in this business a while, you take everything seriously.”

The unmanned Antares rocket is set to take off at 8:03 p.m., carrying a supply-laden Cygnus spacecraft on the first leg of its journey to the International Space Station. It will be its first return to flight at Wallops since Oct. 28, 2014, the day that forever changed the program.

Everything looked to be going smoothly at first: the burst of smoke, the streak of fire, the rocket ascending skyward. Then it seemed to hover in midair. There was a flash. Then down came the rocket in a blast that shook the earth as far away as Pocomoke City.

After an internal investigation attributed the problem to a faulty turbo prop inside the motors, Orbital ATK accelerated plans to replace its decades-old Soviet-made engines with newly built motors. The Wallops flight will mark the debut of its more-powerful Antares' RD-181 engines, made by the Russian company Energomash.

Also new: the launch pad itself, which underwent $15 million in repairs and upgrades after the explosion. While the rocket missed Pad-0A on its descent, it still caused extensive heat damage to the $120 million facility.

In the safety-first world of rocket science, test flights are the norm — but not this time. NASA's inspector general raised a red flag about the omission in a September 2015 report.

For its part, Orbital conducted a "hot fire" test last May in which the new engines fired while the rocket remained bolted to the pad. But the contractor's schedule was too tight to allow for a separate test flight, according to the inspector general report.

Mike Pinkston, Orbital's Antares program vice president and general manager, downplayed the need for a test launch during a press conference Saturday. The engines were thoroughly tested before they were ever shipped to Orbital.

“And we spent a lot of time digging through it,” he added.

Engineers could also take heart knowing that the engines are a slight variation of the RD-180 engine, one of the workhorses of the space program, Culbertson said. Orbital has flown two missions from Cape Canaveral, Florida, since the 2014 explosion, and the Cygnus spacecraft performed well with the RD-180 in both instances, he added.

Cygnus is set to rendezvous with the space station on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Flight Engineers Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Kate Rubins of NASA will grapple Cygnus, using the space station’s robotic arm, beginning at around 7:20 a.m.

The spacecraft's cargo includes 5,100 pounds of supplies and experiments. About one-third of that weight is given over to science applications.

In one, scientists plan to study a phenomenon known as "cool flames" in which some fuels appear to be extinguished but continue to burn invisibly. Understanding the process better in low gravity, where it's significantly easier to produce, could lead to the production of higher-efficiency engines back on Earth.

Researchers also plan to move into the second phase of a study looking at how fire behaves in a spacecraft. The experiment will be conducted remotely after Cygnus departs the station but before its fiery descent back to Earth. Investigators' goal is to put the craft through the same paces that cars, airplanes and other vehicles face in fire-safety tests.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to ferry supplies to the space station. It is one of the crew's few lifelines — lines that have become increasingly frayed in recent months.

Japan's space agency has announced a postponement with its spacecraft because of an air leak while Orbital's U.S. counterpart, SpaceX, is still reeling from a Sept. 1 pad accident at Cape Canaveral.

Orbital has just a five-minute window for Sunday's takeoff.

“It’s pretty tight," Pinkston said. "You miss that five-minute window, you’re pretty much done for the day.”

If the rocket doesn't make that window, the next opportunity is Monday, Oct. 17, at 7:40 p.m.

The weather forecast calls for partly cloudy conditions, a southwest wind of 9 mph and a low of about 59 degrees. NASA scientists have put the chances of launch Sunday at a 95 percent "go."

If the sky is clear enough, the launch is expected to be visible across wide swaths of the eastern United States, ranging from South Carolina to western Pennsylvania to southern New Hampshire.

Weather has presented its own challenge for flight engineers.

First, they had to postpone the launch from Thursday, Oct. 13, to Friday, Oct. 14, in part, because of the additional contingency planning brought about by Hurricane Matthew's near miss. Then came Hurricane Nicole, which triggered a second delay from Friday to Sunday.

Nicole was no threat to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, but it made a direct hit Thursday as a Category 3 storm on Bermuda, home to a key NASA tracking station. Repairs to the station had been completed Friday, and the team was preparing to help support the launch, NASA officials said.


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