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Atlas 5 Rocket Prepares for First West Coast Launch

From the brink ofnothingness to a hopeful future, Lockheed Martin's Atlas rocket program atVandenberg Air Force Base in California has experienced the ultimate swing ofemotions over the past two years. Now, a new rocket stands on the launch pad.

In 2003, crews werepreparing to fly the final Atlas 2AS rocket from America's leading West Coastlaunch site. It would be the 284th Atlas booster to fly from the locale, endinga storied 44-year history.

The Atlas 2AS rocket wasbeing retired in favor of the next-generation Atlas 5, which wasn't coming toVandenberg, instead launching only from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

With Atlas no longerlifting off from Vandenberg, Boeing's new Delta 4 rockets would have all WestCoast business under the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.Both EELVs were designed to be cheaper and easier tooperate over previous U.S. boosters.

But then the EELV scandalbroke. Boeing was found to possess reams of Lockheed Martin proprietarydocuments, and the Air Force imposed harsh penalties. The military ended Delta4's Vandenberg monopoly, spurred Lockheed Martin tobuild a competing launch pad for Atlas 5 and reassigned some satellitedeployment missions.

Today, Atlas 5 has sixlaunches scheduled from the West Coast to carry on the Atlas history at thesite.

TheSpace Launch Complex-3 East pad used by the now-retired Atlas 2AS rockets hasundergone a rapid facelift to support the much larger Atlas 5 vehicles. Sincebreaking ground for the overhaul 14 months ago, crews have completed the majorconstruction work and transitioned to preparations for the first launch.

Over the course of severaldays last week, the first Atlas 5 rocket that will blast off from the site was successfullyassembled on the pad.

"We are ushering in anew era of Atlas operations here on the West Coast," said Jim Sponnick, Lockheed Martin Atlas Program vice president."Seeing a new Atlas 5 on the pad caps a period of sustained construction,test and validation, and signifies a major milestone accomplishment by a verydedicated team."

The first stage -- with itspowerful, dual-nozzle RD-180 engine -- was erected Tuesday. The barrel-like interstage hardware was hoisted Wednesday, followed onThursday by the Centaur upper stage. The fourth day of stacking operations sawthe so-called "boat tail" segment mounted atop the Centaur to serveas the interface between the upper stage and rocket's nose cone.

A series of engineeringexercises and rehearsals are planned in the coming months to check out therejuvenated launch pad. Testing the connections between rocket and groundsystems comes first. Then, the initial fueling operation will be conducted topump super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants into the vehicle.

One strap-on solid rocketbooster, the payload and the nose cone will be installed later to complete the191-foot tall vehicle for flight.

The rocket, known asAV-006, will fly in the Atlas 5-411 configuration. That model is distinguishedby a four-meter diameter nose cone, the one solid motor and single-engineCentaur.

Earlier plans called forthis launch to use a 401-version rocket with no SRBs.However, one booster has been added to provide additional thrust during thefirst 90 seconds of ascent.

The mission will deliver aclassified satellite cargo into Earth orbit for the National ReconnaissanceOffice. Liftoff is expected sometime next spring, pending readiness of thepayload.

"Space LaunchComplex-3 East will soon begin to launch many critical payloads for ourgovernment customers as we perform our mission to provide assured to space forthe nation," Sponnick said. "Hats off tothe construction team for the outstanding job they have done in getting the newpad ready."

The pad modifications,which included raising the mobile service tower, building a launch platform forthe rocket to stand upon and beefing up the flame trench, have progressedwithout any serious setbacks.

"We had to haveeverybody marching in synch with us, and they did do that," said RickBeach, Lockheed Martin's director of the Vandenberg Atlas 5 program. "Attaboys for the Air Force team to be able to accomplishthat and I know they're proud of their participation too. I think a lot ofpeople were very surprised to see it could come together like this."

Vandenberg is the primaryU.S. launch site to place satellites into polar orbits that fly above most ofthe planet's surface.

Copyright 2005, all rightsreserved.

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Justin Ray

Justin Ray is the former editor of the space launch and news site Spaceflight Now, where he covered a wide range of missions by NASA, the U.S. military and space agencies around the world. Justin was space reporter for Florida Today and served as a public affairs intern with Space Launch Delta 45 at what is now the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station before joining the Spaceflight Now team. In 2017, Justin joined the United Launch Alliance team, a commercial launch service provider.