Orbital ATK’s DeMauro: SLS could launch clustered groups of Cygnus spacecraft
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceFlight Insider sat down with Orbital ATK’s Frank DeMauro the day before the launch of the OA-7 “S.S. John Glenn” Cygnus spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. DeMauro talked about Cygnus launch operations as well as its future uses.
The OA-7 Cygnus launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT (15:11 GMT) April 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. It reached its destination, the International Space Station, on April 22 and was subsequently berthed to the Earth-facing port of the Unity module.
While this in and of itself is an important milestone for Orbital ATK’s $1.9 billion agreement with NASA under the agency’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, carrying cargo to the ISS is not the upper limit of the company’s ambitions for the vessel.
Whereas the initial interview started with the discussion of the relationship between ULA (the launch service provider for the coming day’s flight) and Orbital ATK, it drifted toward missions that could take place beyond low-Earth orbit.
SpaceFlight Insider: So tomorrow during the launch, when the rest of the world is looking at the smoke and the fire, what are you focused on?
DeMauro: “I’m paying attention to what I’m hearing from the rocket, the voice of ULA as it’s ascending…”.
SpaceFlight Insider: Listening to all the milestones.
DeMauro: “Exactly, is it flying through the middle of the corridor, are the engines operating at the correct pressures and thrust levels? Is the guidance system working as it’s supposed to? And then, of course, there’s the four-minute[-ish] mark, where the main engines cut off and there’s separation of the first stage. And of course the second stage is 13+ minutes, so there’s a much longer burn. And, again, I’ll be monitoring, sitting on the console, listening to the call-outs as they go through, and just paying attention.
“Of course there’s the great moment when I’m looking at the screen and I’m seeing that the velocity is orbital velocity and there’s a short coast and we have separation. Along the way, fairing separation is always a great thing to hear. So really just focused on what the rocket’s doing, what milestones they’re hitting, are they hitting them in the right order. Is it performing nominally and then achieving spacecraft separation.”
SpaceFlight Insider: How is the collaboration between your two companies when you’re getting Cygnus where it needs to be on that corridor, and on the way to the ISS?
DeMauro: “ULA’s doing the work, we’re monitoring the spacecraft and we’re getting feedback. Of course, the spacecraft is powered. It’s been powered since it was encapsulated in the early part of March, so it’s been running for quite some time. All very healthy. And so, all we’re doing up until launch and through the launch phase and ascent is monitoring the spacecraft—does the telemetry look good, are the temperatures right, are the battery voltages correct?—the general health and well-being of the spacecraft.
“Then we are monitoring what’s happening on the ULA side—are they hitting all their milestones, are they working any issues, what does the range look like, what does the weather look like?—and really paying attention. We’re right next to each other. My chair is right next to our Cygnus mission director, who’s in constant contact with the technical team, both back in Dulles as well as the MOSB (Multi-Operation Support Building) here at Kennedy Space Center. And then we’re conversing with ULA as we go, especially if they’re working any issues. We’re in monitor mode. It’s their rocket, they know it much better than we do, they’re just keeping us informed.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Orbital ATK knows the Atlas V to a certain degree as well. You understand what you’re hearing, and, of course, the folks at ULA know the health and well-being of Cygnus, and they can tell if there [are] any issues from both sides, and you guys are communicating in real time.
DeMauro: “Absolutely. In fact, one of the things we rehearse as part of the launch rehearsal [is] different types of anomalies. And really, launch rehearsals are about making sure the paths of communication are understood and work. So they’re hearing what’s happening. ULA has a person monitoring the payload channels. They’re sitting right next to our payload folks. We’re sitting right next to the rocket folks. We can hear all the nets, so if there’s an issue, we both know about it on whatever vehicle.
“If there’s an issue that comes up that’s an interface issue—maybe we need to turn down the cooling air that’s running through the fairing, something like that. Or maybe the telemetry—because we’re electrically connected between the spacecraft and the rocket—is the rocket getting the spacecraft telemetry and then piping it back to us properly? All that’s being worked. If something were to arise, that’s something that would be worked jointly. But as long as there’s nothing being worked, we’re just monitoring each other’s situation.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Moving on to the future of Cygnus. You guys are doing well on your CRS contract. And, of course, you got selected for CRS-2.
DeMauro: “That’s correct.”
SpaceFlight Insider: So what are some of the things we should see as you move from CRS-1 to CRS-2?
DeMauro: “Couple of important things. One: we’re going to carry even more cargo on those next CRS-2 missions. We’ve figured out how to pack even more into the same-sized cargo module. We’re going to be able to carry more of these mid-deck lockers, which is where NASA puts a lot of its scientific experiments. Not only can we carry more generic mid-deck lockers, we can carry more powered mid-deck lockers.
“So, on previous missions, we were able to carry up to two powered mid-deck lockers. Starting on this mission, OA-7 all the way through OA-11, we will be carrying four powered mid-deck lockers. And then beyond that, we’ll be able to carry more than that. And then the total number of mid-deck lockers we can fly will increase in CRS-2 as well.
“Secondly, we’re going to have a better capability for NASA to load their real-time sensitive cargo as late as possible, which is roughly 24 hours before launch, to minimize the time from when they load it to when it gets to the ISS. Plus, we’ll have an enhanced capability if there’s a launch scrub and the science is going to time out, the ability to roll back, but not all the way to the HIF [Horizontal Integration Facility] in the case of Antares, and be able to swap out that cargo. And again, launch within 24 hours of loading it in the vehicle.”
SpaceFlight Insider: One of the more notable things that I saw awhile back […] was a bunch of Cygni connected to what looked like a small space station in orbit.
SpaceFlight Insider: That could enable NASA’s plans for future exploration back to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of where we’re at with that and where it might go?
DeMauro: “Yes. We have our team focused on these missions, and getting these missions successfully up to the ISS because they’re extremely important, of course. But we also have a team looking at where we take Cygnus beyond Earth orbit. And that’s the exploration stuff you’re talking about. So we’ve come up with our idea of how NASA can—relatively quickly—start putting some sort of outpost out in cislunar space.
“We think the best way to do that is to take Cygnus as it is—take the building blocks of Cygnus as it is—but enhance the systems that it needs for radiation protection, ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System) for crew members to actually live in a Cygnus-derived vehicle. Have the avionics that can stand being in cislunar space for 15 years as opposed to low-Earth orbit for a few months. So our idea is [to] take Cygnus, build upon what we have, and create what we call the initial system or habitat—the ICH.
“We’d launch that on an SLS and put that out in cislunar space, so that when you start sending crews out on Orion vehicles, the Orion vehicle, rather than just being on its own, can then dock with this initial system or habitat. And the crew has a bigger place to live, and more supplies. You can pre-stage supplies.”
SpaceFlight Insider: It sounds like it could serve two purposes—either as an outpost where one could get supplies from or as a hab that they would use to conduct further deep-space missions.
DeMauro: “Exactly. So we have a phased approach. So you start with the initial system or habitat, then you start adding modules to that, like a scientific experiment module. You can add a node. You can then start sending Cygnus-derived logistics vehicles out there to bring updated supplies, more science, whatever, to the point where you’re building on this cislunar outpost where Orion crews can go and work and then eventually come back.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Couple questions there. You said relatively quickly. Define “relatively quickly”.
DeMauro: “NASA’s program to get you there is this next-step program. We participated in phase one and that’s all been completed. We’re waiting for the next step, phase two, to start. Phase one was more conceptual design, phase two is building hardware, demonstrating its capability on the ground, and we expect phase three to be where we start moving into flight—flight experiments or flight demonstrations. We think, getting started as early as 2018, that we can get an initial system/habitat out there in 2021 and start this process to where from 2021 through that following decade you can launch multiple spacecraft—multiple vehicles, I guess we’ll call them—to form this outpost.”
SpaceFlight Insider: That was our next question. You’ve been launching Cygnus on Antares or Atlas, atop each is single Cygnus. Now you’re talking about SLS; that’s an order-of-magnitude more massive launch vehicle, so how could that change how Cygnus is used?
DeMauro: “The opportunities are endless, but they grow a lot by using [the] SLS. You could, on SLS, have sort of a front-seat passenger and a back-seat passenger. You can have Orion on the front seat and have the initial system or habitat in the back seat. Or you could have an Orion on the front seat and a logistics module in the back.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Could we see clustered pods of Cygnus?
Demauro: “Absolutely, and then you can have… I mean, you’re only limited by your imagination at that point because you could have a node where you have a habitation module, a scientific module. You could […] deliver vehicles that could dock to this node. The crew could eventually descend onto the lunar surface if you’re orbiting the Moon. It really opens up possibilities, getting the initial building blocks out there.”
SpaceFlight Insider: When you’re talking about habs, are you guys looking at any particular supplier, because we’ve seen a lot of stuff with Bigelow Aerospace. Or is it like you have a void, where you really don’t have a selection in place for that yet?
DeMauro: “We’ve got the conceptual stuff we did in phase one. And we’re going to bring that into phase two. I think we’re still open on who exactly we’re going to work with, who’s going to build what as part of that program. That will come as part of this next step, phase two, and then eventually phase three. I think [there are] some really great folks out there. Thales Alenia has done a great job building our cargo modules.
“There’s no reason why they can’t apply that experience and all the experience they have with modules that are currently flying on the Space Station to be part of our team, putting a habitat module together. We build our own avionics, but we’ll look at other companies and see what they might offer from an avionics standpoint. Docking adapters and docking systems, solar array systems—we build those in-house, we could probably use those again. I think [there are] some folks out there like Thales that we would love to work with on these things, but we’ll see as time goes on.”
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.