- Associated Press - Sunday, September 29, 2013

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s newest delivery service made its first-ever shipment to the International Space Station on Sunday, another triumph for the booming commercial space arena that has its sights set on launching astronauts.

Orbital Sciences Corp.’s unmanned cargo ship, the Cygnus, pulled up at the orbiting lab with a half-ton of meals and special treats for the station astronauts who assisted in the high-flying feat.

With the smooth linkup, Orbital Sciences of Virginia became only the second company to accomplish such a far-flung shipment. The California-based SpaceX company took the lead last year.

NASA officials along with White House representatives declared it a historic day.

“It was just a very, very impressive job … I just couldn’t be happier and more proud,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, the NASA manager overseeing this commercial effort.

Now that the space station has two U.S. private companies capable of delivering goods, he noted, “it’s certainly relief and something we’re ready to celebrate.”

All this was a week late in coming.

The Cygnus — named after the swan constellation — should have arrived last Sunday, four days following its launch from Virginia on Sept. 18. But a discrepancy in navigation data between the capsule and the space station led to a frustrating standoff. A simple software repair was carried out by ground controllers. Then the Cygnus had to wait for a Russian spacecraft to bring three new astronauts.

The wait involved “some hair-pulling and heartache,” said Orbital Sciences Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson. But in the end, the company’s patience was rewarded with a perfect rendezvous demonstration.

Applause could be heard in Mission Control once Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano grabbed hold of Cygnus with the space station’s hulking mechanical arm. The union occurred 260 miles above the Indian Ocean. Before long, the capsule was latched securely to the orbiting lab. Its hatch will remain closed until early Monday; that’s when the six station astronauts will enter the capsule and begin unloading the bounty.

The successful arrival means Orbital Sciences can start making good on a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for more Cygnus deliveries, each one carrying more and more cargo. The next one could fly by Christmas.

“We have a big incentive ahead of us,” said Mr. Culbertson, a former astronaut who lived on the space station a decade ago.

John Holdren, assistant to President Obama for science and technology, said Sunday’s success validates the president’s goal of focusing NASA on deep-space exploration and leaving station cargo and astronaut hauls to private industry.

“Space history was made again today,” Mr. Holdren said in a statement.

Sunday’s operation culminated several years of effort for Orbital Sciences, which was hired by NASA along with SpaceX — formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — to keep the space station well stocked in this post-shuttle era.

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