Spaceflight Insider

Upgraded Cygnus spacecraft stacked and ready to conduct OA-4 mission

Orbital ATK OA-4 Cygnus spacecraft at NASA's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

It was confirmed on Nov. 13, 2015 that the OA-4 Cygnus would be named the Deke Slayton II. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and NASA are preparing to return Cygnus, the “swan” to service. The spacecraft, loaded with some 7,745 lbs (3,315 kg) supplies, currently resides at the NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If everything goes according to plan, Cygnus will be launched atop a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket to the International Space Station on Dec. 3, 2015.

The automated vehicle slated to carry out this mission – is an enhanced version of the cargo freighter that has already carried out three flights to the orbiting laboratory – and the first of its kind to be scheduled to be launched.

Orbital ATK and former shuttle astronaut Dan Tani provided details about the upcoming OA-4 mission during an event held at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 13, 2015. Photo Credit Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

Former shuttle astronaut and current Orbital ATK representative Dan Tani detailed how the new, enhanced Cygnus, along with ULA’s Atlas V 401 rocket – will allow for some 7,700 lbs worth of cargo to be delivered to the ISS. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

“[this version of Cygnus]…it’s not specifically for this flight, it was a planned enhancement in our product line, it just happened that the major parts of it ended up on this flight and the biggest thing that you’ll see that is different is that the Pressurized Cargo Module, the can on top of the Cygnus that holds all the cargo – is about 30 percent bigger than the previous models,” former shuttle astronaut and Orbital ATK’s Senior Director Mission / Cargo Operations for Orbital ATK, Dan Tani, told SpaceFlight Insider.

The first flight of a Cygnus to the ISS, the Orb-D1 mission in September of 2013, was part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract. The next two missions were under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, which the Dulles, Virginia-based firm has entered into with NASA. All total, Orbital ATK is required to fly some eight resupply missions to the space station.

The Cygnus freighter is comprised of two primary segments, the pressurized cargo module (PCM) which will contain the supplies and a service module which contains the spacecraft’s avionics, electrical, propulsion and communications systems.

The Service Module joined the extended PCM, already at KSC, around the middle of last month (October, 2015). Since that time technicians have prepared it for its flight to the station.

United Launch Alliance logo for OA-4 mission ULA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: ULA

The amount of cargo on the OA-4 flight, the mission’s official designation, marks a substantial increase over the 5,000 lbs (2,300 kg) worth of supplies that the prior flight of a Cygnus, Orb-3, attempted to deliver to the ISS.

Included in this are the NanoRacks-MicroSat-SIMPL satellite, the Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE), the Burning and Suppression of Solids – Milliken (BASS-M) and the Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL). These experiments will expand upon the science the crew on the station are already carrying out. This has been made possible, in part, by the increased capabilities of the enhanced Cygnus.

“We’ve done even more enhancement by figuring out how to pack it even denser than we could and, we were originally going to fly 2,700 kilograms on an enhanced PCM, we’re fitting an additional 1,000 kilograms of cargo into this, well 800 more kilograms, 3,500 kilograms total will fly in this Cygnus,” Tani said.

One of the more notable aspects of the enhanced Cygnus that sets it apart from its predecessors – is its 2 fixed wing Gallium Arsenide cell UltraFlex solar arrays which were produced by Orbital ATK’s Space Components Division. The enhanced Cygnus will also utilize a lightweight space-qualified power system technology.

The Atlas V is not the usual method of transportation used by Cygnus. Under normal conditions, Cygnus rides the medium-lift Antares launch vehicle to orbit from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. On Oct. 28, 2014, the Antares-130 booster lifted off from Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on what appeared to be an ordinary mission – however anyone remotely knowledgeable about space flight – knows that no mission into the black is ever routine. That flight only lasted for about 15 seconds – before the rocket and the Cygnus spacecraft it carried were brought down apparently due to a faulty turbopump on one of the rocket’s two AJ-26 rocket engines.

Wanting to ensure that they could fulfill their CRS obligations, Orbital ATK purchased one flight on one Atlas V – and then another. While Orbital ATK will be carrying out at least two CRS missions on Atlas – it is working to return Antares to service – albeit without the AJ-26. Even before the loss of the Orb-3 mission, Orbital ATK was working to move away from the 40-year-old Aerojet Rocketdyne offerings.

ULA will have a launch window that extends some 30 minutes – opening at 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT) on Thursday, Dec. 3. The launch will take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) located in Florida.

From left-to-right United Launch Alliance's Kevin Leslie, Orbital ATK's Dan Tani and NASA's Randy Gordon around an image of former Apollo astronaut Deke Slayton. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

From left-to-right United Launch Alliance’s Kevin Leslie, Orbital ATK’s Dan Tani and NASA’s Randy Gordon around an image of former Apollo astronaut Deke Slayton. The OA-4 Cygnus – will be named in his honor. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

“These are exciting times for the Cygnus team at Orbital ATK,” said Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. “With OA-4 set to launch in December and at least three additional missions to the Space Station planned in 2016, we remain solidly on schedule to meet our CRS cargo requirements for NASA. Our team’s performance in meeting milestones on an accelerated timeline demonstrates the company’s flexibility and responsiveness to customer needs.”

As was noted by SpaceFlight Insider, the OA-4 Cygnus – will be named the Deke Slayton II, in honor of the former Mercury and Apollo astronaut – Donald K. “Deke” Slayton. The Orb-3 Cygnus was also named after Slayton and Orbital ATK noted that Slayton’s strong history, not only in terms of space exploration, but commercial space efforts as well, warranted that Slayton should get his due.

Tani also explained that the change from the Orb designation to OA – was due to the merger between Orbital Sciences Corporation and ATK (announced on Apr. 29, 2014).

SpaceFlight Insider took part in a vehicle walk down carried out on Friday, Nov. 13, during which, one NASA representative detailed how the station is faring in terms of cargo in the wake of the loss of not one – but two commercial cargo providers.

“Since we haven’t had U.S. cargo missions to the station [since the June 28, 2015 loss of a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft it carried] it is really important that we restart that,” Randy Gordon, a member of NASA’s International Space Station Mission Support Office told SpaceFlight Insider. “There’s about six months of equipment and supplies [that will fly] on this mission. While early-December is not critical, in the weeks and months to follow – it is more important that we get more supplies there.”

Next month’s flight will mark the first time that ULA’s Atlas V  has been used to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. Orbital ATK has also purchased another Atlas V to carry out the OA-6 mission. Boeing is also hoping the Atlas booster will serve to send astronauts to the orbiting laboratory within the next couple years via NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Orbital ATK Deke Slayton II at the Kennedy Space Center Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider


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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