The United Launch Alliance has been trying to launch a spy satellite for the National Intelligence Service worth more than $ 1 billion for some time. On Tuesday night, hours before the company’s last attempt to launch the big booster Delta IV Heavy, the mission was cleared again.
Landing time was far from optimal, but the mission was delayed due to a technical problem with the launch pad. The remarkable thing is that now it is third edition that ULA tested with its ground systems equipment at Space Launch Complex-37 in Cape Canaveral, Florida for this flight.
The mission, called NROL-44, was originally scheduled to begin in June. When it was postponed until the end of August, military officials did not give a reason for the schedule’s failure. On August 29, however, everything seemed nominal, as the tri-nuclear rocket counted to take off from the Florida-based launch vehicle. The countdown reached zero, the three main RS-68 engines ignited, and the starting wire said, “Liftoff!”
But the rocket did not rise. Instead, even as the fires erupted around the three cores, the rocket remained stationary during a hot fire break. This last second friction delayed the mission for several weeks as engineers investigated the problem and eventually determined that the ground system regulator had caused the launch to stop. In essence, three of these regulators in the pad supply high-pressure helium to the main engines. The central motor regulator does not work.
On Twitter, the company’s CEO Tori Bruno wrote: “Found the main cause of a trapped regulator on the side of the pad. A torn diaphragm that can occur over time. Check the condition of the other 2 reg. We will replace or restore if necessary. “Eventually, the company will remove the regulators on all three engines, repair and reinstall them. (Bruno did not respond to a request for comment on this story).
Almost a month later, the company again prepared to launch the NROL-44 mission, even passing a launch readiness review. Then, the day before the launch date on September 26, the company again delayed takeoff. This time, the culprit was a problem with the rocking arm retraction system on the launch pad, which pulls back the fuel pipes and other connections from the rocket just before takeoff. The company took several days to resolve the issue before setting a new launch date for September 29 – Tuesday night just before midnight.
Then the disaster happened again. Local storms caused a delay in preparations before the start. And when the mobile service tower supporting the rocket began to recede a few hours before launch, she had a problem. “When the MST roll started, we found a hydraulic leak in the ground system needed to move the tower, which needs further evaluation,” the company tweeted.
Assuming the problem can be fixed quickly, the launch of the NROL-44 is already scheduled for no earlier than 11:54 p.m. Wednesday through Wednesday (3:54 a.m. UTC on Thursday). The company has an admirable experience in safety and we can be sure that they will start only when everything is ready for work.
“Only a few starts left”
So what’s going on here with all these technical delays? Without being inside the company or working directly on systems in Florida, it’s hard to know for sure. But there are some compelling facts that need to be taken into account.
First, the infrastructure in the launch complex-37 is aging. NASA first built this pad in 1959 to support the Saturn I rocket. Since then, the A pad has been out of use, but the ULA took over the 37B launch complex about two decades ago and modified it in 2001 to to maintain both its single-core Delta IV and tri-core Delta IV heavy missiles. The first Delta IV rocket launched from the pad in November 2002.
The idea that the infrastructure of the Delta IV pad is getting a little longer in the tooth is supported by Bruno’s comment on the regulators, which wear out over time, as well as the problems with the retractable arm and the mobile service tower.
Another issue is that this pad is rarely used. The last Delta IV rocket took off from this launch site in August 2019, and the flight speed is only about one rocket per year since the end of 2016. Some of the ground systems involved in the launch can really only be tested under conditions of launch, so equipment problems can only occur during a crisis.
Finally, the question arises about the future of the launch site. The ULA has already retired the Delta IV single-core missile and plans to fly the Delta IV Heavy just four more times after that mission before retiring in favor of the more cost-effective Vulcan-Centaur booster. Only two of these four flights will be operated by Space Launch Complex-37, so the company has little incentive to invest heavily in infrastructure.
“The Delta IV Heavy has only a few launches left, and the Space Launch Complex-37 is heading to the cemetery,” said a Florida-based launch source. “I’m sure the money is being transferred to Vulcan and its launch pad, Space Launch Complex-41. These scrubs will no doubt disappoint other consumers.”
Image of the list by Trevor Mulman for Ars