NASA Decides To Phase Out Delta 2

WASHINGTON--NASA intends to conduct its final Delta 2 launch around the end of the decade andthen shift more of its launch traffic in that payload class to the Atlas 5 orDelta 4 launch vehicles, the U.S. space agency?s chief rocket buyer said in anAug. 8 interview.

BillWrobel, NASA assistant associate administrator for launch services, said thedecision to phase out use of the Delta2 came down to money. Delta 2 launch prices, already on the rise, areexpected to jump sharply once the U.S. Air Force abandons use of the reliableworkhorse as soon as next year so it can make greater use of the Atlas 5 andDelta 4, which the service helped develop under the Evolved Expendable LaunchVehicle (EELV) program.

?The AirForce is basically going full steam ahead with EELVs,? Wrobel said. ?And sincethey are a user of [the EELV rockets] we thought maybe we should become more ofa user of it too.?

That policyposition is consistent with an agreement NASA signed with the Air Force in 2005when the space agency agreed to make greater use of the EELV rockets. Inexchange, the Air Force endorsed NASA?s decision to build new shuttle-derivedlaunchers rather than upgrade EELV for human missions to the Moonand beyond.

Wrobel saidthe U.S. Defense Department was informed last month of NASA?s decision to startdirecting the space agency?s medium-lift launch traffic towardEELV. Wrobel would not discuss current or projected prices for Delta 2launches. However, he did say that an internal study NASA completed in Julyconcluded that EELV would represent the more cost-effective solution forthe agency?s medium-lift launch needs after 2010 ? even if the substantiallymore capable rockets are launched with a single undersized satellite on board.

?It turnsout in the future, if you were to wrap everything up ? and I?m talking aboutlaunch site infrastructure, restarting the line, the basic cost of thevehicles, etc. ... it really isn?t more expensive? to use EELVs, he said.?That?s part of what we were facing and what this really gets down to. As withanybody else, it?s all about money ... That?s where we all came to the decisionthat it made more sense for us to go down the EELV road in the future.?

Delta 2prices, which sources said already have pushed past the $65 million per launchmark, are projected to rise even higher once the Air Force conducts its lastDelta 2 mission ? a GPS 2RM satellite launch slated for September 2008 ? andleaves NASA to shoulder the cost of operating the rocket?s California andFlorida launch pads and keeping United Launch Alliance?s Delta 2assembly line in Decatur, Ala., up and running.

NASA tookthe Air Force?s impending departure from the program into account last yearwhen it told bidders for the next Mars Scout mission to count on spending $120million for a Delta 2 launching in 2011. Bidders for the next Discovery-classplanetary science mission, meanwhile, were told to bank on paying around $130million for a Delta 2 launching in 2013, according to sources anddocuments. Those two missions now are included among the 12 to 15 medium-sizedpayloads NASA anticipates launching between 2011 and 2020 on an Atlas 5 orDelta 4. In addition, NASA anticipates launching about 10 other spacecraftduring that same timeframe ?which were already kind of in that EELV-class tobegin with,? Wrobel said.

Prior toNASA?s decision to direct more launch traffic toward the EELV,United Launch Alliance was projecting an EELV launch rate of five to 10launches a year between 2010 and 2020. The addition of NASA?s Delta 2-class payloads could meanan additional 1.5 launches per year for EELV. Mike Rein, a spokesman forDenver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), confirmed NASA?s decision to stopusing Delta 2 once the agency?s current launch services contract runs out. Reinsaid the company would continue to market Delta 2 launches to U.S.government customers and support Boeing Launch Services? commercial Delta 2sales at least through 2012. ?ULA understands the combination of a reductionin the demand for launches from the NASA science community and the conclusionof the [U.S. Air Force] contract for GPS Delta 2 launches has made it difficultfor NASA to justify the business case for continuing Delta 2 support beyondcurrently contracted missions,? Rein said in a written statement. ?ULA isrequired by our current NASA Launch Services contract with NASA to offer Delta2 launches through launch year 2012.? NASA has used the Delta 2 twice sofar this year and plans to use it a third time when it launches theasteroid-bound Dawn spacecraft in September.

Includingthe upcoming Dawnmission, NASA has nine remaining Delta 2 launches on its manifest with thelast being a November 2009 launch out from California ? of the Wide-fieldInfrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spacecraft.

Additionally,NASA is on the hook for a tenth Delta 2 that has not been assigned a payload. IfNASA were to walk away from the rocket, which is already in production, theagency would have to pay United Launch Alliance a substantial termination fee.Exactly how much, Wrobel would not say. ?Let me put it this way, we are goingto work pretty hard to try to find a home for it,? he said.

Onecandidate for the surplus Delta 2, according to Wrobel, is the Landsat DataContinuity Mission, a land-imaging satellite NASA is procuring on behalf of theU.S. Geological Survey for a 2011 launch. But a Landsat source said the programwould rather launch on an EELV than go on what could be the last flight ofDelta 2.

Wrobel saidNASA has set an internal deadline of December for finding a payload for the surplusrocket.

Keeping theDelta 2 line open much beyond 2010 would be more complicated than giving UnitedLaunch Alliance a contract for a new batch of rockets beyond the 10 currentlyon order, Wrobel said. NASA also would have to cover significant one-time coststo restart production of certain Delta 2 components that remain in inventorybut no longer are being built, including strap-on motors and the RS-27 mainstage engine, Wrobel added.

?Restartinga line is nontrivial. You have things that have been out of production for awhile,? Wrobel said. ?It?s a matter of restarting everything ? [and] we justdon?t have the money.?

While usingEELV for medium-class payloads is not expected to be more expensive for NASAthan being the sole government customer for Delta 2, that still means the spaceagency is facing higher launch bills than it has today for launching Delta2-class payloads.

Alan Stern,NASA?s associate administrator for science, said his launch costs would go upin either scenario.

While co-manifesting? putting two spacecraft on a single rocket ? could help defray those costs,Stern said it is not a perfect solution. ?Co-manifesting has both pluses andminuses,? Stern said. ?In some circumstances it works. In others it isdetrimental. There will be some places where it will help us and many placeswhere it?s not to our benefit to do. Our challenge is to determine in eachmission cases what makes the most sense.?

Wrobel saidco-manifesting would be encouraged where appropriate but not required. RecognizingNASA?s best shot at keeping launch costs down could be a new rocket, severalU.S. companies are looking to field Delta 2 alternatives priced more in linewith what the agency traditionally has paid to put up medium-sized payloads.

El Segundo,Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies? Falcon 9 rocket, which is slatedto debut next year, could carry Delta 2-class payloads. And Orbital SciencesCorp. of Dulles, Va., has begun early development of a Delta 2-class launcherits calling Taurus 2.

?We willcontinue to talk to NASA about some ideas we have for a Delta 2-class launchvehicle that is conceived to be significantly less in terms of cost than thecurrent Delta 2 design,? Orbital Sciences spokesman Barron Beneski said Aug. 9.

Wrobel saidNASA has not ruled out directing some or even all of its future medium-classmissions to new providers. ?We wouldn?t preclude using them in the future ifthey become available,? he said. NASA issued a request for information Aug. 7intended to capture feedback from these companies and what they have to offer.He said the request for information is also an opportunity for companies tomake suggestions for how the agency could improve its processes for qualifyingnew launch service providers.


Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.