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Cygnus cargo capsule launches for space station, returns 'John Glenn' to orbit

Orbital ATK's "S.S. John Glenn" Cygnus spacecraft launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (United Launch Alliance)
April 18, 2017

— John Glenn lifted off atop an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral into Earth orbit on Tuesday.

The preceding sentence could describe both the launch of the first American astronaut to circle the planet on Feb. 20, 1962, and the liftoff of a U.S. commercial cargo spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station 55 years later.

The launch of the latter, the S.S. John Glenn — named in honor of the late Mercury hero — took place at 11:11 a.m. EDT (1511 GMT) Tuesday (April 18) from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The uncrewed spacecraft, an Orbital ATK Cygnus module, was boosted into orbit on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V, the modern version of the launch vehicle that carried the astronaut into space from nearby Complex 14.

"It is an honor to launch this spacecraft," said Vern Thorp, ULA program manager for commercial missions. "I feel like we're bridging history."

Click to enlarge and view 360 video in a pop-up window. (NASA)

The S.S. John Glenn was released from the Atlas' Centaur upper stage 21 minutes after its liftoff, beginning a four-day rendezvous to the station. The spacecraft will be berthed to the orbiting complex on Saturday (April 22) after a short wait in orbit to allow for the docking of the Russian crewed Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft scheduled to launch and arrive at the station on Thursday.

Once latched to the Earth-facing port on the Unity module, the John Glenn will be unpacked by members of the space station's Expedition 51 crew of its more than 7,600 pounds (3,450 kg) of science research, supplies and hardware. It will then be refilled with spent equipment and other refuse for disposal during the vehicle's destructive reentry into the atmosphere.

'A great tribute'

Glenn, who died on Dec. 8, 2016 at age 95, was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6. A Marine Corps Colonel and four-term U.S. Senator from Ohio, Glenn was the last of NASA's Mercury astronauts to die. In addition to being the first American to orbit Earth, Glenn became the oldest astronaut to fly in space at age 77 on space shuttle Discovery in 1998 (a record he still holds).

"We're very proud of the fact that this spacecraft is named after my former fellow astronaut, John Glenn," said Frank Culbertson, space systems group president at Orbital ATK and a shuttle commander. "It's a great tribute to John to be able to take his name to orbit once again."

A banner bearing the photo of the late John Glenn is seen aboard the S.S. John Glenn Orbital Cygnus spacecraft. (NASA/Bill White)

The christening of the S.S. John Glenn continues Orbital ATK's tradition of naming its Cygnus cargo modules after late astronauts. This John Glenn is the seventh Cygnus to launch to the station under a commercial resupply services contract with NASA.

The spacecraft has on board a banner with a photo of its a namesake, as well as some items for his family, including his widow, Annie Glenn. The two were wed for 73 years.

"We have some memorabilia for his family [aboard]," said Culbertson at a pre-launch press briefing. "Annie Glenn is an amazing person, she is very strong and I appreciate her giving us permission to use John's name on this mission. It meant a lot of us to be able to do that. Our team was very honored."

Surrounded by science

The John Glenn's primary payload includes an advanced plant habitat system and other research to be conducted in the U.S. National Laboratory, ranging from targeted cancer cell therapies to growing crystals.

Orbital ATK's OA-7 S.S. John Glenn mission patch. (Orbital ATK)

The Cygnus is also carrying dozens of small satellites to be deployed either from the space station or the spacecraft in the coming months, including from colleges around the world, in conjunction with Nanoracks and the Von Karman Institute QB50 CubeSats program.

The S.S. John Glenn will remain at the station for 85 days, until July, when it will depart with several tons of trash for a fiery reentry into Earth's atmosphere. Prior to the entry, the craft will serve as a platform for the Saffire-3 experiment to study flame development in the microgravity environment.

The Cygnus is also equipped with RED-Data-2, a new type of recording device that will ride along as the spaceship re-enters to provide data about the conditions the spacecraft encounters during its plunge into the atmosphere.

Tuesday's launch marked Orbital ATK's third Cygnus flight on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. The liftoff was the first-ever to be streamed live in 360 degrees, as part of a collaboration between NASA, ULA and Orbital ATK.

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