Delta IV Board Convened

One day, two boards.

Three days before the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, undergoing a widely publicized failure on first stage engine number 1,  a United Launch Alliance Boeing Delta IV  lifted from its adjacent pad, and following a nominal first stage burn, experienced lower than expected performance by the Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10B-2  engine powering the upper stage.

The Delta IV upper stage compensated by performing a longer burn, using reserve fuel, allowing the GPS satellite which it was carrying to be delivered to the correct orbit.

Now, on the same day NASA and SpaceX announced the creation of an incident review board, the Air Force Space Command also announced it is ordering an Accident Investigation Board to investigate the Delta IV iincident. As a result, the upcoming launch of an Atlas V carrying the X-37B spaceplane will almost certainly be delayed.  The Atlas V uses a slightly different version of the RL-10 engine.

The cryogenic RL-10 engine is a true rock star of the space age, powering vehicles as diverse as the Saturn 1 and the DC-X, as well as both Air Force EELV  Delta IV and Atlas V launch vehicles, and following the review and any necessary corrections, it will no doubt go on performing admirably. And it needs to, as future uses include both the interim upper stage for SLS, as well as a two engine upper stage being designed as the Atlas V 402 for the Commercial Crew Program.

Several points bear consideration however.  First, the fact that a problem with the Delta IV upper stage can temporarily ground the Atlas V, highlights one of the central fallacies of the EELV program as it is currently structured, and violates one of the central tenants of the two vendor solution when it was originally put forward, as it has from day 1.

Now, with a completely different solution available in the form of the SpaceX Falcon 9, there is little point in paying more than a billion dollars per year to subsidize a monoploy vendor, in addition to overpaying for every launch as well, in the name of securing assured access to space through maintaining two separate product lines, when they share such a glaring common failure point.

A second point, just for consideration;  it seems likley that had the Delta IV been conducting Sunday’s launch to ISS instead of Falcon 9, the results as far as Orbcomm would have been exactly the same.

The fact that both the Falcon 9 and Delta IV compensated for engine issues and performed their primary missions sucessfully is a positive reflection on both rockets, both teams and both companies, and no doubt it would have been the same for the Atlas V as well.  Nevertheless, what does need further reflection is continued support of solution which is depriving the United States Department of Defense the full benefits of both badly needed cost savings, as well as truly redundant, and completely independent access to space.

Posted in: EELV

About the Author:

4 Comments on "Delta IV Board Convened"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. D. Messier says:

    All this is already in the works. There’s a government policy that covers the awarding of contracts to new launch providers for all the relevant agencies involved. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to launch a NOAA spacecraft back in July. The military has been exploring what payloads it would be comfortable launching on a Falcon 9 that is still new and has yet to put anything in GEO.

    Falcon 9 is still a new rocket. it hasn’t flown very often. And it clearly still has major teething pain. So, the military is going to be a bit cautious about this matter and want to see more successful flights before putting anything really valuable on a Falcon 9. Despite the high costs of ULA’s rockets, they are extremely reliable. The Air Force also has a lot of insight into how they were developed and how they operate.

    The Falcon 9 and Heavy rockets will be able to compete for more government launch contracts. It’s just going to take time for the military to be comfortably putting billion dollar satellites on a new rocket.

  2. Doug,
    Agreed. However, time is already built in. After the interim purchase of 9 cores earlier this year, I believe we are looking at what, 2016 before the first Falcon would launch under the EELV contract even if it receives an order next year?
    Even assuming some delays in the existing manifest, it should be be an established system well before that point.
    The better question is probably
    A: Why continue the Launch Capability Subsidy?
    B: Is there any realistic reason to believe the prices will come closer into line until that crutch is removed?

    The EELV reliability record is undisputed, but its relationship to price is not nearly so clear.

  3. gaetano marano says:

    launch very expensive and mission-critical sats and probes, need a VERY RELIABLE rocket and NOT a “cheap” rocket, that’s why the Falcon-9 will never lift huge military sats nor one-of-a-kind probes like Curiosity

    also, the F9 issues are much worse and deeper than the Delta IV issue

Post a Comment