A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket blasted off from Virginia’s Eastern Shore Friday evening and boosted a Cygnus cargo ship into orbit loaded with four tons of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station, including a more female-friendly $23 million space toilet.
“When the astronauts have to go, we want to allow them to boldly go,” quipped Jim Fuller of Collins Aerospace, builder of the compact toilet.
Running 24 hours behind because of a, the rocket’s two Russian-built RD-181 first-stage engines thundered to life at 9:16 p.m. EDT, instantly pushing the Cygnus cargo ship skyward from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport — MARS — at NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, test facility.
Launching directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit, the two-stage rocket completed the climb to space in just seven minutes, releasing the Cygnus supply ship into its planned preliminary orbit two minutes later. If all goes well, the spacecraft will catch up with the space station Monday morning.
Meanwhile, 27 minutes after the Antares took off, SpaceX engineers at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida tried to fire off a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a third-generation Global Positioning System navigation satellite for the U.S. Space Force.
But the countdown was aborted on computer command two seconds before engine ignition. It was the second launch abort in two days for Space’s normally reliable Falcon 9 program following a scrub at the T-minus 18-second mark Thursday that grounded another Falcon 9 carrying 60.
There was no immediate word on what went wrong in either case or when SpaceX will attempt to get both rockets off the ground.
The Antares rocket also suffered a launch abort Thursday night due to the ground software glitch, but it was clear sailing Friday as Northrop Grumman kicked off the company’s 14th cargo run to the International Space Station.
The Cygnus was packed with crew supplies, including food and clothing, science gear and other equipment, including a high resolution camera that will be used to film an upcoming spacewalk in unprecedented detail and 10 bottles of Estee Lauder skin cream that will be featured in a commercial social media photo shoot.
The new zero-gravity toilet is 65 percent smaller and 40 percent lighter than the one currently in use in the U.S. segment of the space station. It features multiple design improvements that will be put to the test on the space station before they eventually make their way into Orion capsules bound for the moon in NASA’s Artemis program.
While saving weight and reducing the toilet’s footprint were major goals, “another big part of our project was optimizing the use of the toilet for the female crew,” said Melissa McKinley, a NASA project manager.
And that includes better accommodations for what she referred to as “dual ops.”
“NASA spent a lot of time working with the crew members and doing evaluations to improve the use of the commode seat and the urine funnel to make it more accommodating to use by female crew members.”
As for Estée Lauder, the station crew will photograph containers of the company’s Advanced Night Repair cream while they float in the multi-window cupola compartment against the blue-and-white backdrop of Earth.
The project is part of an ongoing NASA drive to encourage more private-sector use of low-Earth orbit. According to Bloomberg, the company is paying NASA $128,000 for the out-of-this-world photo shoot.
“It is actually not a sort of shoot (for) a commercial. It is just some pictures that will be taken in the iconic cupola that we’ll be using on our social media platform,” said Stéphane de La Faverie, group president of The Estée Lauder Companies.
Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said station astronauts will not appear in the photo shoot.
“The rules for the astronauts, they can facilitate the photo shoot, they can take the pictures as part of their official duties, but they cannot be seen in the shots,” he said. “And they’re not going to receive any additional compensation. Ethics rules bar them from doing that. We’re paying their salary.”