S.S. Kalpana Chawla Cygnus arrives at Space Station

by Joseph Navin & Chris Gebhardt

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus vehicle, the S.S. Kalpana Chawla, has arrived at the ISS following launch or its Antares rocket for the NG-14 mission. The flight delivered thousands of kilograms/pounds of equipment, crew supplies, and science to the orbital outpost.

Liftoff occurred Friday, 2 October at 21:16 EDT (Saturday, 3 October at 01:16 UTC) from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, ahead of arrival at the ISS on Monday.

The mission:

First and foremost, NG-14 was tasked with delivering a host of pressurized cargo including science experiments, crew supplies, general maintenance equipment, and personal items to the Station.

The only remaining operational U.S. vehicle that does not dock to the International Space Station but rather berths, Cygnus approached the outpost after a 2 day rendezvous.

When arriving, Cygnus approached to within 10 meters below the International Space Station, during which NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner operated the Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, to reach out and grapple Cygnus and then physically berth it to a port on the Unity (Node-1) module.

Once secured, crew members will take photographs of the vehicle to document its arrival condition before opening the hatches and beginning the process of removing the newly delivered cargo.

Canadarm2 grabs hold of the Cygnus NG-12 spacecraft as it arrives at the ISS. (Credit: NASA)

Included within Cygnus is:

  • 850 kg (1,874 lb) of crew supplies, 
  • 1,217 kg (2,683 lb) of scientific experiments and gear, 
  • 151 kg (333 lb) of spacewalking equipment, 
  • 1,230 kg (2,712 lb) of vehicle hardware, and 
  • 71 kg (156 lb) of computer equipment.

A portion of the vehicle hardware includes fans, batteries, and consumables for Russia’s Zarya module as well as a new upgraded pane to provide improved viewing and optics for the crew when using the cupola observatory.

Once a portion of the cargo is removed, opening up interior volume, Cygnus will once again serve as an extension to the lab, meaning some Station experiments will be installed into Cygnus instead of into science racks on the Station’s modules.

The ability for Cygnus to serve as a temporary scientific expansion to the International Space Station is something that had been demonstrated on previous, but not all, prior flights of the cargo craft.

The vast majority of that experimentation will wait until after the upcoming round of crew rotation flights, including the arrival of Soyuz MS-17 with two Russian cosmonauts along with NASA astronaut Dr. Kate Rubins in mid-October.  They will be followed two weeks later by the arrival of four additional U.S. side crewmembers on the Crew-1 mission of SpaceX.

Outside of the vehicle, a single unpressurized cargo element known as SharkSat is also flying on this mission.  According to Northrop Grumman, the SharkSat will test emerging technologies with potential uses in 5G cellular networks.

While securely berthed to the International Space Station, Cygnus will hold the ability to perform Station orbit adjustment maneuvers or burns — like the ones most recently seen to prepare the Station for the Soyuz MS-17 crew launch and to move the outpost out of the way of an unknown piece of space debris.  

The ability of Cygnus to do these types of maneuvers safely was demonstrated in 2019 on a prior mission but has not been used operationally.

At the end of its mission, Cygnus will be detached from Station using Canadarm2 before going on to perform a multi-week post-Station mission, which will include purposely starting a fire on board the craft in a safe, contained experiment known as Saffire. 

These ongoing series of Saffire experiments for NASA seek to better understand how fires behave in space and how certain materials can be carefully chosen for future spacecraft construction to mitigate the start and spread of a fire.

The rocket

The launch used an Antares 230+ rocket, a variant making its third flight.  NG-14 is also the third flight for NASA under the CRS2 (Commercial Resupply Services 2) contract.  Northrop Grumman previously completed all original and extended CRS1 contract flights between 2013 and April 2019 under the name Orbital Sciences… who then became Orbital ATK and were in turn then bought by Northrop Grumman.

The first stage of the Antares rocket for this mission was built at the Yuzhmash factory in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and arrived in the U.S. just before the NG-12 launch in November 2019.

The first stage uses two RD-181 engines running on liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosine. The engines are a single chambered version of the RD-180 engine that is used on the Atlas V rocket series and are built in Russia by NPO Energomash.

The RD-181 was itself an early-life replacement on Antares following the launch failure of the third Cygnus mission on 28 October 2014.  That mission, and prior ones, used two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines (modified NK-33 engines).

The NK-33s were originally built by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau in the Soviet Union for the N-1 Moon rocket.  Following the cancellation of the Soviet lunar program in 1974, the engines were ordered destroyed; however, a group secretly stored around 200 NK-33s in Samara, Russia.

Speaking of the first two flights of the Antares 230+ variant, Kurt Eberly told NASASpaceflight that the rocket’s performance matched pre-flight predictions.  “With the first couple flights of the Antares 230+, the performance we saw in the flight data very closely matched pre-flight predictions.  A few things here and there that you would expect that help us refine the models, but nothing that would cause us concern.”

The main difference with the Antares 230+ variant is its ability to deliver more mass into low Earth orbit, a desire achieved by reducing structural material no longer needed in portions of the rocket, strengthening others, and not throttling the RD-181 engines down during Max-Q like the predecessor variants did.

The S.S. Kalpana Chawla Cygnus

The Cygnus spacecraft is made up of a Pressurized Cargo Module built by Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, and a Service Module consisting of the two solar arrays, navigation equipment, and propulsion elements built by Northrop Grumman in Dulles, Virginia.

Both sections of the Cygnus spacecraft for this mission arrived separately in August.  After being integrated together, Cygnus was moved to the Horizontal Integration Facility where it was attached to the rest of the Antares rocket. 

In keeping with the tradition of naming each Cygnus vehicle after someone instrumental in the field of space exploration, Northrop Grumman has chosen to honor Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman to travel to space.

Born 17 March 1962 and Karnal, India, Kalpana earned a Bachelors of Engineering in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in India before moving to the United States in 1982.

Dr. Kalpana Chawla during launch training at the Kennedy Space Center in December 2002. (Credit: 2002)

She went on to earn a Masters of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984, a second Masters in 1986 and a Doctorate in aerospace engineering in 1988 — after which she accepted a job at NASA’s Ames Research Center conducting computational fluid dynamics research on vertical and short take-off and landing concepts. 

She became a U.S. citizen in 1991 and applied for and was accepted into the NASA astronaut corps in 1994.  Just two years later, she was selected for her first mission, the STS-87 microgravity research flight. 

Her first mission launched on 19 November 1997 onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, with Kalpana flying as Mission Specialist 1.  During the flight, she traveled more than 16.7 million km (10.4 million miles) in 252 orbits of Earth in 15 days and 12 hours.

After returning from that mission, she was assigned duties in the astronaut office with the International Space Station program before being selected in 2001 for her second flight.

Kalpana and her six crewmembers launched on the STS-107 mission on 16 January 2003 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.  During the 16 day flight, more than 80 scientific experiments studying the Earth, space science, advanced technology, as well as health and medicine were conducted by the Columbia crew, including one instance where Kalpana gave up her off duty time to try to fix an experiment so that scientists on the ground could have useful data.

Kalpana Chawla on the Flight Deck of Columbia on STS-107, her second mission to space. (Credit: NASA)

Speaking of the decision to name the craft after her, Frank DeMauro, Sector Vice President and General Manager, Tactical Space Systems at Northrop Grumman, stressed in an interview with NASASpaceflight the importance of including the family members of surviving astronauts in those decisions.

“We went to Kalpana’s family and told them what we would like to do.  And they were very supportive, very supportive of our decision to use her name and to honor her in this way,” said Mr. DeMauro.

“You know, we’re always very sensitive about this because we are honoring someone’s legacy, and we want to make sure that we don’t infringe on something the family might not want to do.  And, you know, we have members of our team come forward and propose names for each of these missions.  And some names, as soon as you hear them, you just know that’s the right name.  And this was one of them.” 

(Lead image: NASA, arranged by Brady Kenniston)

Related Articles