CAPE CANAVERAL - Boeing's Delta 4 rocket is poised to return to flight this week for the first time in a year and a half, and there's more riding on the launch than the weather satellite on top.
"Much of our workload is handled by the Delta fleet, and we've been down for a bit," said Col. Ed Bolton, who took over the Air Force's rocket-launching operations in December and is looking to get the over-budget and behind-schedule program back on track.
Job 1: the military needs a flightworthy Delta 4. One sure way to re-establish the rocket's reliability is to successfully launch and deliver to orbit the GOES-N weather satellite this week.
Boeing's Delta 4 is one of two rockets available to the government under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, and it's the one assigned to launch most of the U.S. military and spy satellites.
The vehicle last got off the ground in December 2004, with the flawless liftoff of the brutish, heavy version of the Delta 4, one of the most powerful rockets ever to launch from Cape Canaveral.
The only problem: the rocket didn't quite work.
A fuel-sensor glitch caused the rocket's three first-stage engines to stop running before they should have, and the upper stage could not make up the difference.
Two university science spacecraft were lost and the military's payload, a weight simulator called DemoSat, was dropped off 10,000 miles short of orbit. Had it been a real spacecraft, it would have been rendered useless space junk.
Boeing and the Air Force deemed the launch a "success," despite the fact that it failed to meet the fundamental goal of getting the payload to the targeted orbit.
But this was a test flight, and prime among the goals was data-collection.
The team got lots of data about the performance of the new rocket and they say the data helped them solve the fuel-sensor problem.
For 18 months, however, no Delta 4 has flown.
Another problem with the rocket's propellant system arose.
Then, batteries used to power the Deltas' safety-destruct system had to be replaced fleetwide.
Questions later arose about the strength of a bonding and filling material used -- sort of like tile grout -- on some parts of the rocket. Several lesser technical issues also were found.
Then, last fall, as progress started to be made toward returning the Delta 4 to launch status, hundreds of Boeing rocket machinists walked off the job in a dispute over pay and benefits.
In the case of almost every mission on Delta's manifest, work came to a screeching halt.
"That really hampered our ability to get work done on the pads," Bolton said. "Boeing has done a good job getting that negotiation done."
The problems with the Delta 4 came at troublesome times for the company and for the military rocket program.
First, Boeing faced a brewing scandal and federal investigations into its employees' illegally obtaining secret Lockheed Martin documents to gain an unfair advantage in the bidding for early launches.
The charges, part of a larger contracting-fraud investigation that Boeing this week said it is willing to pay $615 million to settle, led the Air Force to move $1 billion worth of launches from the Delta 4 to the rival Lockheed Martin Atlas 5.
Moreover, the government's total investment in the two rockets has grown from an estimated $17 billion to more than $32 billion since its inception.
Part of that increase is because of a crash in the commercial space-launch market that forced the Defense Department to increase taxpayer subsidies to the two rocket fleets. Those subsidies included everything from cash to help pay bills at launch sites on both coasts to increased launch fees the companies charge for each mission.
Still, on a per-launch basis, the program is meeting its goal of delivering launches for less than they cost under previous programs like Titan 4.
The other rocket in the military's program, Atlas 5, has flown several commercial and NASA missions during the Delta's grounding.
A slate of communications and intelligence satellites assigned to Deltas, however, have been stuck on the ground along with the GOES-N weather satellite, which is scheduled to launch no earlier than between 6:11 p.m. and 7:11 p.m. EDT (2011-2311 GMT) Wednesday.
Now, it's time to get them into space so they'll be ready when needed in years to come, Bolton said.
"We look at it as return to flight," Bolton said.
The coming flights of the Delta 4 also take on added importance because of NASA's recent decision to use the rocket's RS-68 engines (rather than the shuttles' main engines) for the cargo launcher for missions to the moon and Mars.
Thus, every flight of the Delta 4 becomes an opportunity to learn more about the engines and reduce the risk to those future exploration missions.
Bolton's optimistic the Delta 4 flight pace is going to become more steady.
"We're going from a launch rate of zero a month for more than a year" to five launches between now and July 20, he said.
The next heavy version of the Delta 4 could fly as soon as January.
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