Cargo Mission to International Space Station Launches Successfully

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Space fans watching from Robert N. Reed Downtown Waterfront Park on Chincoteague look skyward as the Antares rocket launches from Wallops Island on Saturday, Feb. 15. 2020. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

— By Carol Vaughn

The Antares’ and Cygnus’ 13th cargo supply mission to the International Space Station launched Saturday afternoon from Wallops without a hitch.

The Antares rocket lifted off on time, at 3:21 p.m., carrying the Cygnus spacecraft, which was set to rendezvous with the space station in around two days.

Local residents and visitors alike looked skyward from their chosen viewing spots, including at the NASA Wallops Visitor Center, where the parking lot was near capacity around three hours before liftoff.

Queen’s Sound public boat ramp, on the causeway between the mainland and Chincoteague, also was filling up by then, with around a dozen vehicles including several RVs parked there.

No parking is allowed along Chincoteague Road, nor along the southern end of Main Street on Chincoteague, during launches.

Additionally, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge closed at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

Other space aficionados made their way to Mariner’s Point, at the southern tip of Chincoteague.

Retired NASA Wallops Flight Facility employee Roy Tolbert, of Chincoteague, manned a table there, answering questions and handing out literature about the mission and NASA.

“They had never done this before, until last Sunday,” Tolbert said about having the information available at Mariner’s Point. He volunteered for the post.

He also manned the table during the first launch attempt Sunday. Around 1,000 people were there then, including from India, Korea, China, and many states, he said.

Roy Tolbert of Chincoteague mans an information table at Mariner’s Point on Chincoteague in advance of the Antares rocket launch on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

Bill and Catherine Schofield, of Sicklerville, N. J., were among those viewing the launch from Mariner’s Point. They come to Chincoteague each year for the popular Death by Chocolate event on Valentine’s Day weekend.

This, year, the event happened to coincide with the rescheduled launch.

“We were surprised by it; we were just here for Death by Chocolate, and all of a sudden, it was like, oh, there’s a launch,” Catherine Schofield said.

She teaches high school science —she recently was named teacher of the year and citizen of the year — and also was a pilot. She wanted to become an astronaut back during the Gemini program — but at the time, women were not accepted.

“We are so blessed that it fell” on this weekend, Bill Schofield said.

Others gathered at Robert N. Reed Park in downtown Chincoteague, where the resident mallard ducks posed for photo ops as people waited for liftoff.

David and Stephanie Dalton, of Preston, Md., made the trip to Chincoteague three times this week to catch the launch.

The third time was the charm, as they watched the rocket lift off from the park.

“We can see them from our backyard, but you don’t get the same thrill,” she said.

The Cygnus spacecraft, named after the first African-American astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., was loaded with more than 3,400 kilograms of cargo, including science experiments and items for use by the three-person crew of Expedition 62.

An Antares rocket travels skyward, as seen from Robert N. Reed Downtown Waterfront Park on Chincoteague, on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

Among supplies the mission is delivering are items to support scientific research, including:

  • The Mobile SpaceLab, a tissue and cell culturing facility that launches and returns on resupply spacecraft to give researchers a quick turnaround platform for biology experiments.
  • Plant Habitat-02, in which radishes will be cultivated. The ability to grow nutritious crops in space is critical for NASA’s human exploration of Mars and the Moon, according to a press release.
  • The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-IV, which will use the Cygnus spacecraft after it leaves the space station to examine how fires spread in space in different conditions and materials. The research is important for developing flame-resistant materials and fire prevention measures for space.

The launch was the second of the Antares 230+ rocket, an upgraded version of the rocket that allows for heavier and larger payloads.

The first attempt, on Feb. 9, was scrubbed with around three minutes to go until liftoff, after off-nominal readings from a ground support sensor. Around 3,000 people had gathered to watch from the NASA Wallops Visitor Center that day, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Hudson.

The launch was rescheduled for Friday, but didn’t happen then because of high upper-level winds.

The mission is only the second cargo resupply mission to launch from Wallops in midwinter, providing a boost to the local economy in the slowest time of year for tourism.

More information about the resupply missions is at https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/structure/launch/northrop-grumman.html.

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