Cygnus cargo craft packed, ready to go to space station – USA TODAY

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Teams at Kennedy Space Center have begun packing a spacecraft for a first-of-its-kind mission to the International Space Station.

Targeting a Dec. 3 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the mission will mark the return to flight of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo craft.

The last time it flew, a year ago, the Cygnus and its cargo were destroyed when the company’s Antares rocket exploded seconds after lifting off from Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

While revamping the Antares with new first-stage engines, Orbital ATK has booked two flights on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, temporarily bringing Cygnus launches to the Space Coast.

The spacecraft’s cargo module arrived at KSC in August and the propulsion module arrived last week.

“These are exciting times for the Cygnus team at Orbital ATK,” said Frank Culbertson, president of the company’s Space Systems Group.

An “enhanced” Cygnus will carry more than 7,700 pounds of food, equipment and research up to the station and its six-person crew — several thousand pounds more than on previous flights, including three successful missions, thanks in part to riding on the more powerful Atlas V rocket.

The Cygnus cargo module is being packed in the same KSC facility where modules built by the same company — Thales Alenia Space of Italy — were prepared for launch in space shuttle payload bays. The work was expected to run through this week, with some more time-sensitive contents added just before launch.

The cargo and service modules will be joined later this month, them moved to another KSC facility to be enclosed in a protective payload fairing next month before being hoisted atop the Atlas V.

The space station continues to catch up to its optimal supply levels after failures by three different partners since last October: Orbital ATK (then called Orbital Sciences), the Russian space agency in April and SpaceX, NASA’s other U.S. commercial cargo provider, in June.

Recent successful flights by Russia’s Progress freighter and Japan’s HTV-5 have eased fears about a supply shortage that might have prevented the station from supporting a full crew. Another Progress is scheduled to launch next month.

SpaceX hopes to return its Falcon 9 rocket to flight within six to eight weeks. The company will start by launching commercial satellites, and no date is set yet for its next ISS resupply mission with a Dragon capsule.

Orbital ATK plans to launch another Cygnus from Florida next spring on an Atlas V before the Antares resumes launches from Virginia next summer.