Spaceflight Insider

Strength in diversity: OA-7 to fly on ULA Atlas V 401 from Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK will use an Atlas V 401 rocket to launch the OA-7 Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. According to representatives of the company, the mission could take place as soon as early next year and highlights that the diversity of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Program is its strength.

Rather than use the company’s upgraded Antares 230, which got the OA-5 resupply mission on its way on Oct. 17 of this year, Orbital ATK reached out to United Launch Alliance (ULA) to use their Atlas V 401 rocket for the OA-7 resupply mission. ULA has already successfully sent two Cygnus spacecraft to the orbiting lab after the Oct. 2014 mishap that saw the loss of the Orb-3 Cygnus/Antares some 12 seconds into flight.

Officials with Orbital ATK noted that, contrary to some reports, this was not a decision made solely by NASA. Rather, it was a mutual decision meant to support ISS operations.

Orbital ATK Antares 230 being prepared to launch OA-5 mission in October of 2016. Photo Credit: Charles Twine / SpaceFlight Insider

An Antares 230 sits poised ready to launch at Wallops’ Pad 0A. Photo Credit: Charles Twine / SpaceFlight Insider

“As usual, the truth is somewhere in between,” Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs (Space Systems) Vice President Frank DeMauro told SpaceFlight Insider. “We’re constantly working and coordinating with NASA on their flight manifest in terms of when they want us to fly, what they want us to fly and how much they want us to fly […] through that process. We had a conversation with NASA a little bit ago where we discussed a couple [of] things [including the possibility of this mission].”

DeMauro went on to note that in their discussions with NASA, the prospect of increasing the amount of cargo on last month’s OA-5 mission and other topics were covered – including flying the OA-7 mission on an Atlas V.

Also contrary to some reports, Orbital ATK has stated that there wasn’t a call for Antares to stand down. According to a statement issued by the company: Orbital ATK’s remaining missions to be conducted in 2017 and 2018 under the CRS-1 contract will launch aboard the company’s Antares rockets from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“It wasn’t as though NASA sent us an RFP and it wasn’t as though we went to NASA and said, ‘Hey, we got this great idea,'” DeMauro explained. “This was part of the process that we normally follow; in this particular case, there was strong interest on NASA’s part to ‘A’ get more cargo and ‘B’ to bolster the schedule assurance we had when we looked across the remaining missions for CRS-1.”

With some five flights remaining under the first phase of the CRS contract, an additional Atlas V fight would help increase the amount of cargo that would be sent to the ISS. The increased performance of the Atlas launch vehicle, coupled with the additional payload capacity of the enhanced Cygnus spacecraft, allow for more payload to be ferried to the space station. The increased capacity of the pairing becomes more apparent when the entire launch history is reviewed:

  • Orb-D1 Demo flight – 1,543 lbs (700 kg)
  • Orb-1 Antares – 2,780 lbs (1,261 kg)
  • Orb-2 Antares – 3,293 lbs (1,494 kg)
  • Orb-3 Antares – N/A
  • OA-4 Atlas V 401 – 7,383 lbs (3,349 kg)
  • OA-6 Atlas V 401 – 7,745 lbs (3,513 kg)
  • OA-5 Enhanced Antares – 5,100 lbs (2,313 kg)

If everything goes as it is currently planned, the OA-7 mission would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida sometime this spring. The overall schedule of Cygnus flights for the 2017 manifest would see the lone Atlas launch complemented by two Antares 230 flights.

A Cygnus CRS OA-6 spacecraft grappled by Canadarm2

An archive image of the Cygnus CRS OA-6 spacecraft grappled by Canadarm2. Photo Credit: NASA

On Sept. 1, 2016, the other active partner on the CRS program, SpaceX, encountered a significant setback when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the pad at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. While the NewSpace firm has stated it’ll resume flights by the end of this year (2016), the next mission it is scheduled to fly to the ISS, CRS-10, will likely be delayed.

In the era before NASA’s various commercial programs, when the agency only had a single launch system, the Space Shuttle, an on-orbit accident would cause operations on orbit to grind to a halt – after each of the two shuttle accidents, NASA didn’t send crews aloft for a period of two years. All of that changed with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

This $800 million initiative worked to enable an array of spacecraft manufacturers and launch service providers to produce several launch systems and vehicles to transport cargo to the International Space Station. Announced in 2006, the program was, by most accounts, an unqualified success and heralded numerous “public-private” partnerships.

That led the way to the Commercial Resupply Services program, which began with Orbital ATK’s Cygnus/Antares spacecraft and rocket and SpaceX’s Dragon/Falcon 9 duo under the CRS-1 phase of the contract. Under the second phase of this effort, they were joined by the uncrewed variant of Sierra Nevada Space Systems’ Dream Chaser spacecraft.

Orbital ATK has stated that it plans on conducting some five Antares 230 launches between October 2016 (OA-5) and 2018. DeMauro noted that the Antares launch team is fully ready to support a flight of the rocket early next year.

“Our job is to be ready when they want us and their job is to assign the launch dates when they need us,” DeMauro told SpaceFlight Insider. “When we approached ULA, they confirmed that not only did they have a rocket available, but that they had a launch slot available as well. When we reviewed the remaining five missions we had to fly, it made a lot of sense to insert an Atlas launch into the flights of Antares.”



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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