Russian Cargo Ship Docks with ISS

Russian Cargo Ship Docks with ISS

Cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) usually are so routine that they barely get mentioned in the news, but the docking of a Russian Progress spacecraft this morning (October 29) is noteworthy following the failure of a U.S. Antares rocket last night.   If nothing else, the Progress docking demonstrates that there are several ways to get cargo to the ISS and while the Antares failure is disappointing, it is not a showstopper for ISS operations.

Russian Progress spacecraft have resupplied space stations since the 1970s.  Developed initially to support the Soviet Union’s Salyut and Mir space stations, today they routinely take cargo to the ISS.  Progress M-25M launched at 4:09 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning and docked with ISS at 9:08 am EDT.  It is carrying 1,940 pounds of propellant, 48 pounds of oxygen, 57 pounds of air, 926 pounds of water, and 2,822 pounds of supplies.

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft would have delivered another 5,050 pounds of supplies, experiments and equipment on its third operational ISS cargo run if the launch had been a success.

Orbital’s commercial cargo competitor, SpaceX, just ended its fourth operational cargo mission to the ISS and another is scheduled for launch on December 9.   SpaceX’s Dragon not only takes cargo to the ISS, but also returns cargo to Earth.  It is the only ISS cargo spacecraft designed to survive reentry through Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the ocean.

Japan also launches cargo spacecraft to the ISS designated HTV for H-II Transfer Vehicle (H-II is the name of the rocket that launches it).  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has launched four HTVs already and the next is scheduled for early 2015.  

Europe developed the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to deliver cargo, but no more ATV launches are planned.  The final ATV mission, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS.

In short, as NASA officials made clear last night, Antares was not carrying any cargo that was “absolutely critical” for ISS operations and the 6-person ISS crew is fine.  The impact of the Antares failure is more likely to be financial in terms of who pays to build a replacement rocket and spacecraft, not to mention the cargo.  Orbital’s Frank Culbertson said last night that the company had “some” insurance for the launch, but was not specific about how much.  He said the cost of the Antares and Cygnus was approximately $200 million.  Costs will also be incurred for the investigation into the accident, making any needed changes to the rocket, and cleaning up the debris.  Orbital provides cargo services to NASA under a fixed price contract ($1.9 billion to deliver 20 tons to the ISS through 2016), which may mean that the company will have to cover all those costs, but last night NASA’s ISS program manager Mike Suffredini was vague about that issue.  He said the contract was set up for such contingencies and NASA would work with Orbital to get the hardware replaced.

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