Northrop Grumman launched the NG-16 Cygnus cargo vehicle, the S.S. Ellison Onizuka, to the International Space Station on Aug. 10 at 18:01:05 EDT from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island flight facility in Virginia.
Arriving at the orbital lab on Aug. 12, the mission delivered 3,723 kg. of crew equipment, science experiments, food, and station hardware.
Preparations for the flight began years ago when NASA officially granted authorization for Northrop Grumman to begin long-lead procurement for vital elements of the cargo and service module sections that together make the Cygnus spacecraft.
The cargo module for NG-16 arrived at Wallops in June 2021, followed in early July by the service module. After integration, the vehicle underwent integrated checkouts and fueling operations before Cygnus was loaded with an initial round of cargo and then mated to the top of the Antares rocket.
For the NG-16 Antares preparations, Kurt Eberly, director of space launch programs, Northrop Grumman, noted that after Cygnus was mated to the rocket, a series of flight tests began.
“We do what we call Flight Sim 2, which is… we basically fake the rocket out into flying the trajectory by pumping fake navigation data into the navigator. And then that sends it over to the flight computer and runs the autopilot and so on. And we have Cygnus powered up for that flight simulation as well.”
Following that, a dual sequence of Flight Termination System (FTS) checkouts occurred.
After a final round of integrated checkouts and final pre-rollout cargo loads, Antares and Cygnus made the journey to Pad 0A at Wallops, where they were connected to ground systems and taken vertical for pre-flight checkouts.
On Aug. 9, Antares was lowered back to horizontal for cargo late load operations before going back vertical overnight into Aug. 10 ahead of launch.
Liftoff occurred at the end of a five-minute window with Antares pitching onto course to take it southeast from Virginia and out over the Atlantic Ocean into a 174 x 332 km orbit inclined 51.6 degrees.
Safely in orbit, Cygnus performed a two-day phase with the station, rendezvousing with the outpost for capture by Canadarm2. This phasing period included 12 total burns for orbit corrections and plane adjustments to allow Cygnus to arrive at a point 250 meters from the station just over an hour before its scheduled capture time.
Once Cygnus was berthed to the ISS, the station crew was busy. “It’s the largest cargo load we’ve delivered,” related Frank DeMauro, sector vice president and general manager, Tactical Space Systems at Northrop Grumman. “Not only for Cygnus but also for Antares lifting that up there. So we’re excited about that.”
In addition to the internal cargo, the NG-16 Cygnus also carries PIRPL, or the Prototype Infrared Payload — an experiment for the Space Development Agency of the Department of Defense.
“It’s an infrared sensor. So it’s going to be capturing live infrared data and then storing that data and downlinking it, relaying it to the Launch and Missile Defense team within the space sector,” said DeMauro. “And then really what we’re going to do is take that data and we’re going to use that to support the development of some modeling and simulation programs that the team can use for tracking and detecting different types of threats in the atmosphere.
“And interestingly, because it’s an infrared payload, they’re also looking to use that data to look for some natural phenomena, like volcanoes and other things, but also be able to track forest fires. So it’s an infrared payload that has some specific uses, but we’re also looking to gather enough data to look at other, broader uses for it.”
Showcasing Cygnus’ use as more than just a cargo delivery vehicle, and given a previous demonstration of the craft’s ability to reboost the ISS and Nauka’s recent engine issue that caused the station to flip 540 degrees before attitude control was regained, DeMauro spoke to using Cygnus for maneuvering the station.
“Typically, [a reboost is] something that, under normal circumstances, would be pre-planned. So on this mission, we don’t have anything like that baselined. If that’s something that NASA would desire at some point in the mission, we could certainly go through the process working with NASA on planning for something like that. But it’s not in the baseline plan for this mission.”
In keeping with tradition, Northrop Grumman names each Cygnus spacecraft after someone notable, a pioneer, in the arena of human spaceflight.
For NG-16, Northrop Grumman has named the Cygnus after Ellison Onizuka.
“When we make these decisions, and we survey who the possible namesakes are for these missions, we’re really looking for people who in a lot of ways added a tremendous amount to the history of human spaceflight but in some cases aren’t always talked about as much,” said Frank.
“And we felt Ellison Onizuka was a perfect candidate for this mission, given all he did in his life as a test pilot. He was another perfect candidate, representing the diversity of the astronaut corps, and of course gave his life for that pursuit of the advancement of the human exploration of space. He is really a special human being who I think was and is a real role model and inspiration for many people who support human spaceflight.”
Born in Hawaii, Onizuka was the first Asian-American astronaut. An engineer, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, a test pilot, and a NASA astronaut, he earned a Masters of Science in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and served as a test pilot and flight test engineer before attending test pilot school in 1974.
In January 1978, he was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate and officially joined the astronaut corps in August 1979. He initially worked in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory and as a member of the Orbiter test team at the Kennedy Space Center.
He flew to space on his first mission on Jan. 24, 1985 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-51C mission, a classified flight for the Department of Defense.
Upon landing, Onizuka was quickly reassigned to his next mission: STS-51L.
After numerous delays, on Jan. 28, 1986, Onizuka and his six crewmates boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger and lifted off for a seven-day, multifaceted mission of bio-medical, physical, mineralogical, and astronomical studies that would also have seen them become the first people to conduct in-space observations of Halley’s Comet.
In the wake of the loss of the Challenger crew, numerous dedications, remembrances, and organizations have been named in his honor. A soccer ball given to him by the high school his children attended and that he took with him on Challenger was recovered afterwards and in 2016 was flown to the International Space Station by Col. Shane Kimbrough on the Expeditions 49/50 missions.