Heavy lift Delta IV rocket launch problems

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Saturday, January 8, 2005

A launch on December 21, 2004 by Boeing with a new "Delta IV Heavy" rocket from Cape Canaveral failed to place a 'dummy' satellite into geosynchronous orbit, but the launch was considered successful by Air Force officials.

The dummy satellite, the purpose of which was to monitor the Delta IV launch, as well as two experimental nanosatellites, provided by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to take digital photos of cloud formations and to test the effectiveness of materials in spacecraft, were lost.

Boeing's Vice President for Expendable Launch Systems, Dan Collins, said that the rocket malfunction was caused by a shorter first stage burn than was expected. This was compensated for during flight, however the fuel lost in the process limited final stages of the burn and was responsible for the payload not achieving orbit.

A Boeing spokesman, Robert Villanueva, agreed that many flight objectives were achieved, but did not call the launch a success. “We do have an outstanding issue we need to work on before our first operational launch next year,” Villanueva said. [1]

Boeing was paid at least $140 million by the U.S. Air Force to place a 'dummy' satellite into geosynchronous orbit, 22,300 miles from Earth, according to the FAA. The launch was a demonstration for the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

Collins also reported, "We now have enough information and confidence in the Delta IV Heavy to move forward with preparations for the upcoming Defense Support Program launch in 2005. The mission has met all its major objectives. The US Air Force - was very, very happy." [2]

The 23-story rocket, a heavy-lift variant of the Delta 4 family, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 21 at 4:50 p.m. (2150 GMT). The launch was delayed three times in December due to weather problems and technical glitches.

The Delta IV Heavy is scheduled to carry the final Defense Support Program missile launch detection satellite to orbit this August. A National Reconnaissance Office classified payload is set to be aboard the second operational launch scheduled for December 2005.