The United Launch Alliance has been trying for some time to launch a spy satellite for National Reconnaissance Office fees, valued at more than 1 billion. On Tuesday evening, just hours before the company’s latest attempt to launch a larger Delta IV heavy booster, the mission was canceled again.
The weather at the launch site was far from perfect, but the mission was delayed due to a technical problem with the launch pad. What is noteworthy is that this is now Third Company ULA has tested its ground systems equipment for this flight at the Space Launch Complex – 37, located in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Named NROL-44, the mission was scheduled to begin in June. When the delay occurred by the end of August, military officials did not give a reason for the schedule slip. However, on August 29, everything seemed trivial as a three-core rocket was calculated to lift from the Florida-based launch pad. The countdown reached zero, three main RS-68 engines ignited, and the projection conductor said, “Lift ift f!”
But the rocket did not take off. Instead, even as the fire grew around the three cores, the rocket was stopped while the hotfire was being unfinished. This last-second bush delayed the mission for a few weeks as engineers investigated the issue and eventually decided the launch had to be stopped by the Ground Systems regulator. Essentially, these three regulators on the pad deliver high-pressure helium to the main engines. The regulator for the center core engine failed.
On Twitter, the company’s chief executive, Tori Bruno, Wrote, “Found the root cause of the regulator stalling the pad side. Torn diaphragm, which may occur over time. We will check the condition of the other 2 rags. We will replace or rebuild as needed.” Eventually the company will remove, renew and reinstall the regulators for all three engines. (Bruno did not respond to a request for comment for this story).
About a month later, as the company prepared to launch the NRL-44 mission again, it also passed a launch readiness review. Then, a day before the September 26 launch date, the company again delayed the liftoff. At this point the culprit had a problem with the swing arm retraction system of the launch pad, which pulls the fuel lines and other connections from the rocket just before the liftoff. The company took a few days to fix the problem, before setting a new launch date on Tuesday evening before the late September 29th.
After that, disaster struck again. Pre-initial preparations were delayed due to local storms. And when the rocket-backed mobile service tower began rolling just hours before launch, it also had a problem. “When the MST roll started we found a hydraulic leak in the ground system needed to move the tower which needed further evaluation.” The company tweeted.
Assuming the problem can be fixed quickly, the NRL-44 launch launch is now scheduled for 11:54 a.m. ET Wednesday (03:54 UTC Thursday). The company has an admirable safety record, and we are sure it will launch only when everything is ready.
“Only a few launches left”
So what is going on here with all these technical delays? Without being inside the company or working on systems directly in Florida, it’s hard to know for sure. But there are some uncertain facts to consider.
One, the infrastructure in Lunch Complex-37 is aging. The pad was first built by NASA in 1959 to support Saturn I rockets. Pad “A” has since fallen into disuse, but the ULA took over the L-Compound Complex-BBB about two decades ago, and modified it in 2001 to support both its single-core Delta IV and three-core Delta IV heavy rockets. The first Delta IV rocket pad was launched in November 2002.
The idea that the infrastructure on the Delta IV pad gets a little longer in the teeth is supported by Bruno’s support for regulators’ timely comments on the subject of wear and tear, as well as problems with retraction arms and mobile service towers.
Another issue is that these pads are not used frequently. The last Delta IV rocket launch took off from this launch site in August 2019, and the flight rate has been only one rocket in a year since the end of 2016. Some ground systems associated with a launch can only be tested in launch conditions, so problems with equipment can only crop up at the moment.
Finally, there is the question of the future of the launch pad. ULA has already retired the single-core Delta IV rocket, and the Delta IV heavy rocket plans to fly four more times after this mission before retiring in favor of a more cost-effective Vulcan-Centaur booster. Only two of those four flights will fly from Space Launch Complex-37, so there is no big incentive for the company to invest heavily in infrastructure.
A Florida-based launch source said a few launches of the Delta IV Heavy are pending, and will depart for the Space La Launch Complex – 37 Cemetery. “I’m sure the money is being transferred to Vulcan and its launch pad, Space Launch Complex-41. These scrubs will no doubt frustrate other range users.”
Image list by Trevor Mahalman for Aras