The United Launch Alliance has been attempting to launch spy satellites into the National Reconnaissance Office worth more than $1 billion for quite some time. On Tuesday evening, the mission was reorganized a few hours before the company’s recent attempt to launch a large Delta IV Heavy booster.
The weather at the launch site was not optimal, but the mission was delayed due to technical issues on the launch pad. Noteworthy is that this is now third It’s a problem the company ULA has experienced with ground systems equipment at Space Launch Complex-37 in Cape Canaveral, Florida for this flight.
Called NROL-44, the mission was originally scheduled to launch in June. When it was postponed until the end of August, military officials did not disclose the reason for the schedule. But on August 29th, everything was nominally the same as the three-core rocket counted down until it took off from the Florida-based launch pad. The countdown reached zero, the three main RS-68 engines were ignited, and the firing conductor said “Lift off!”
However, the rocket was not launched. Instead, even if a fire broke out around the three cores, the rocket stayed there while the hot fire was interrupted. This last minute scrub delayed the mission for several weeks as engineers investigated the problem and eventually decided that the ground systems regulator had stopped launching. Basically, the three regulators on the pad deliver high pressure helium to the main engine. The regulator of the center core engine has failed.
Twitter CEO Torri Bruno wrote“I found the root cause of the pad side fixation regulator. A diaphragm tear that could occur over time. I’m checking the condition of the other two regulators. I’ll replace or rebuild as needed.” In the end, the company removes the regulators for all three engines, repairs them, and then reinstalls them. (Bruno did not respond to requests for comment on this story).
Almost a month later, the company was ready to resume the NROL-44 mission and even passed the launch readiness review. And a day before its release on September 26, the company again delayed takeoff. This time the shooter had a problem with the launcher’s swingarm retraction system pulling the fuel lines and other connections back from the rocket just before takeoff. The company took several days to fix this and set a new release date on September 29th (just before midnight on Tuesday evening).
Then the disaster occurred again. Pre-launch preparations have been delayed due to local storms. And there was also a problem when the mobile service tower supporting the rocket began to fall off hours before launch. “When the MST roll started, we found a hydraulic leak in the ground system that needed to move the tower that needed further evaluation.” The company tweeted.
Assuming the issue can be resolved quickly, the NROL-44 release is currently scheduled before Wednesday 11:54 PM EST (Thursday 03:54 UTC). The company has a great safety record and you can be sure that it will only be released when everything is ready.
“Only a few shots left.”
What is happening here with all these technical delays? It’s hard to know for sure if you’re not inside the company or work directly on systems in Florida. However, there are some solid facts to consider.
First, the infrastructure of Launch Complex-37 is aging. NASA first created these pads in 1959 to support the Saturn I rocket. Pad “A” has since been deprecated, but ULA acquired Launch Complex-37B about 20 years ago and modified it to support both single-core Delta IV and three-core Delta IV rockets in 2001. In November 2002, the first Delta IV rockets were launched from the pad.
The notion that the Delta IV pad’s infrastructure is getting a bit longer in the teeth is supported by Bruno’s comments on the problem with the regulators getting worn out and torn over time and the retraction arm and mobile service tower.
Another problem is that these pads are not used very often. The last Delta IV rocket flew from this launch point in August 2019, and its flight speed has been only about one rocket a year since the end of 2016. Some ground systems involved in firing can actually only be tested in firing conditions, which creates problems. It may only appear during Crunch Time with the equipment.
Finally, I have a question about the future of the launcher. ULA has already retired the single-core Delta IV rocket, and plans to fly only four more Delta IV Heavy rockets after doing this mission prior to retirement in favor of the more cost-effective Vulcan-Centaur boosters. Only 2 out of 4 flights take place in Space Launch Complex-37, so the company doesn’t have a big incentive to invest heavily in infrastructure.
One launch source in Florida said, “The Delta IV Heavy has only a few launches left, and the space launch complex -37 is heading to the cemetery.” “I’m pretty sure the money is being transferred to the Vulcan and its launch pad, the Space Launch Complex-41. These scrubs will undoubtedly frustrate other range users.”
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