A privately-owned spacecraft named Cygnus successfully docked with the International Space Station on Sunday, becoming the second such craft to do so. The docking came a week later than planned, in part due to a software issue and traffic at the orbiting station.
The unmanned Cygnus spacecraft was drifting near the International Space Station, as planned, when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency used the space station's robotic Canada-arm to grab the cargo capsule. Astronauts then used the Canada-arm to connect the capsule to the orbiting lab. And with that, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences became the second U.S. company to show it can resupply the ISS.
It's a feat that had only been accomplished by a handful of governments until just last year, when the California-based company SpaceX made history by docking its Dragon spacecraft. Orbital now joins SpaceX as a private provider of cargo resupply services.
"Today we delivered more cargo on a commercial basis than has ever been delivered to the space station - 700 kilograms," said former NASA astronaut and executive vice president of Orbital Sciences Frank Culbertson, who spoke at a NASA briefing later Sunday. "And I know the crew is going to be very happy when they get the hatch open and get a chance to see all the things that are in there and obviously the things that will keep their mission going."
Cargo included food, clothing and science experiments.
Watch NASA video of Cygnus' arrival at the Space Station:
It wasn't always smooth sailing for this mission, even though the Cygnus spacecraft launched atop Orbital's Antares rocket with a picture perfect liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia on September 18. The rendezvous with the space station had to be postponed when a data formatting issue between the Cygnus and the ISS emerged and required a software patch. The delay was extended due to traffic congestion, as a Russian spacecraft carrying astronauts was set to reach the station on September 25.
The United States is relying on private industry to ferry cargo to the station while NASA focuses on developing the next generation of spacecraft that can go to an asteroid or Mars. The U.S. space agency acted as a lead investor in Orbital Sciences and SpaceX as they developed their crafts.
NASA's Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, praised the public-private partnership. He said the goals were to use NASA investments to kickstart the commercial space industry, and also to spur reliable, cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit and the space station.
"And the third was to become a customer for these services once they emerged," he said. "I think we can say today conclusively that we've added another partner to the list that helped us achieve these goals 100 percent."
NASA has awarded Orbital a $1.9 billion contract for resupply missions, the first of which is planned for December. SpaceX already has started fulfilling its $1.6 billion contract.
It's crucial for the U.S. to be able to reach the space station, says Orbital's Culbertson, something it has not been able to do since NASA retired its aging space shuttle fleet in 2011.
"We know and understand and accept the responsibility this is critical to the continuation of the station and the continuation of U.S. leadership in space, as well as an international partnership that I think is a shining example of how nations can work together when they have the ability to let their engineers, their scientists, their operators and their professionals work together and get politics out of the way," he said.
Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft is designed to be filled with the station's trash and to burn up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Its planned undocking is set for October 22.