Boeing Frontiers
October 2003
Volume 02, Issue 06
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Integrated Defense Systems


Delta rockets chalk up enviable launch record


BEYOND 300It's been a 43-year-long run of success for the Boeing Integrated Defense Systems Delta rocket program. The program recently recorded its 300th launch, giving it a record that stands alone for value and level of customer satisfaction.

No. 300 came on Aug. 25, when a Delta II sent the NASA Space Infrared Telescope Facility into space. The launch was a special event for Boeing IDS Delta employees at Huntington Beach, Calif., Pueblo, Colo., Decatur, Ala., Canoga Park, Calif., Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Soon after came the 301st launch. The third flight of the Boeing Delta IV successfully deployed the U.S. Air Force Defense Satellite Communications System spacecraft, DSCS III B6, on Aug. 29.

"Over the years, Delta rockets have earned a reputation among our customers as 'the industry workhorse,'" said Will Trafton, Boeing IDS vice president and general manager for Expendable Launch Systems. "This reputation is the result of the continued mission success made possible by our dedicated and skilled Delta team.

"Delta has become the rocket of choice to launch spacecraft designed to improve our way of life here on Earth, defend our nation, and help us learn more about the universe," Trafton said.

History buffs will remember that the U.S. government initially contracted for design of the Delta expendable rocket in response to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957. Delta was derived from the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile, developed in the mid-1950s for the U.S. Air Force.

The successful launch of the NASA Echo 1A satellite on Aug. 12, 1960, started Delta on its way to becoming "NASA's workhorse." The Delta legacy grew with launch of the TIROS and GOES satellites, which revolutionized weather forecasting, and the first Telstar and Intelsat launches, which enabled the now-famous TV phrase, "live, via satellite."

The Explorer research satellites provided data about energy fields and particles that could affect communications satellites, while the NASA Pioneer probes began a long series of space exploration missions that continue today.

"It's always a thrill every time a vehicle lifts off," said William Hodge, Boeing IDS manager of Delta Vehicle Systems. "I still get tense in the last 30 seconds prior to liftoff. But the biggest highlight was probably the U.S. government 'Star Wars' program, starting with Delta 180 [in 1986], because of the extra effort required and the high degree of company and customer cooperation."

The Delta run hasn't been unbroken. In 1984, Delta production came to a halt when NASA planned to launch subsequent satellites on board the Space Shuttle. However, in January 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced that shuttles would no longer carry commercial payloads, which opened the way for the return of Delta.

A major contract to produce and launch 20 medium launch vehicles for the U.S. Air Force, beginning in 1989, brought the Delta production line back into full swing—this time with the more powerful Delta II. The U.S. Air Force contract was the catalyst necessary to market Delta commercially. All 24 of the Global Positioning System Block II and IIA operational satellites were launched from Cape Canaveral on Delta II vehicles.

Through the years, Delta has become larger, more advanced, and capable of carrying heavier satellites into orbit. Initially, the rocket lifted 100 pounds to low Earth orbit. The current Delta II model 7925 can boost approximately 4,800 pounds (2,200 kilograms) to geosynchronous transfer orbit and 11,300 pounds (5,136 kilograms) to low Earth orbit.

As the rockets have evolved and the mission demands have changed from the earliest Deltas to the new Delta IV, the Boeing Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power organization has provided an indispensable boost to the program's success. As a partner to Boeing IDS on the Delta program, Rocketdyne supplies main-stage engines to lift every Delta rocket.

Today, the Delta program faces a depressed commercial satellite market, which dramatically increases competition for commercial launches. The program is adjusting by temporarily withdrawing from bidding on commercial launches, refining and codifying processes, finding product and process cost reductions and concentrating on mission assurance for its government customers.

If you ask IDS employee George Stout, a Delta launch conductor, the standout moment during these 301 Delta missions was the liftoff of Delta 185 on June 10, 1989. "This was my first time as launch conductor," he recalled. "We had scrubbed three times for weather, had one engine cutoff, and one more scrub for weather prior to the launch. But we produced the successful launch of the NAV II-2 satellite, when the rocket lifted off on the sixth attempt. I received the Director's Appreciation Award for that launch."

Performances like these have earned the Delta team an enviable record within the aerospace industry for exceptional safety, quality and reliability—the prime elements of what the Delta team calls "Mission Assurance."


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