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Endless technical issues force Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubs

BUMPED and revised to include the September 30th launch abort.

Can we count the ways? For what has become a string of seemingly endless technical issues, ULA on September 29th was forced to once again scrub the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite because of a technical issue with its Delta 4 Heavy rocket and launchpad.

Apparently when they tried to move the launchpad’s mobile gantry away from the rocket they discovered “a hydraulic leak in the ground system.”

On the evening of September 30th (tonight) they tried again, only to have an abort at T-7 seconds, just as the engines were to ignite as planned.

They have been trying to get this bird off the ground now for more than a month. Here is a chronology of the launch scrubs, with all the various technical issues described.

August 26: Scrub because of “several problems,” the primary cause being a “pneumatics system issue.” This same countdown also had a long hold because of two blown fuses in a launchpad heater.

August 29: Aborted at T-3 seconds, due to “a torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators” in the launchpad. During the countdown they also had holds to deal with a fuel valve issue, a fuel sensor issue, and a temperature payload issue.

September 26: Scrubbed because of issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 27: Scrubbed because of a continuing issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 29 (just after midnight): A lightning strike forced a scrub. This was the only scrub not caused by technical issues.

September 29 (just before midnight): Scrubbed because of a hydraulic leak in the ground system.

September 30: Aborted at T-7 seconds. Under investigation. No new launch date yet announced.

This string of seemingly minor and apparently easy-to-fix problems does not reflect well on the quality control systems at ULA. I understand that this is rocket science, and thus difficult. At the same time engineers have now been doing launches for more than a half century, and this tale of woe above is more reminiscent of the early days of rocketry in the 1960s, when you might have a dozen or more scrubs because of these kinds of technical issues. You’d think by now ULA’s launch engineers would have worked these kinks out.

From a customer perspective this list of issues is also troubling, considering that the Delta 4 Heavy costs the customer more than any other commercial rocket. Granted it can put up a lot of payload, but the Falcon Heavy can put up more, and do it for less than half the cost and far more reliably. If I was ULA’s customer I would not be very satisfied with the product I am getting, even if the launch turns out to be a complete success.

The delays are also impacting other launches. SpaceX has had to repeatedly delay the launch of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 because for scheduling reasons the ULA launch must come first.

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22 comments

  • pawn

    Delta Heavy is the new Titan!!

  • MDN

    This seems to reflect more on poor infrastructure (i.e. the launch pad) maintenance than on QA since they are in fact finding the problems. How many do you want to bet that the launchpad support budget has been dramatically reduced as business has softened?

  • Patrick Underwood

    Didn’t ULA lose its billion-dollar-a-year maintenance & support subsidy a while back?

  • David

    And to think, it was only a few years ago that Tony Bruno would figuratively beat the pulpit and shout “Schedule reliability!” as a reason why customers should stick with ULA over that upstart SpaceX….

  • Diane Wilson

    As someone (Rand Simberg, I think?) commented, if you launch less than once a year, you forget how.

  • Tom Billings

    “If I was ULA’s customer I would not be very satisfied with the product I am getting, even if the launch turns out to be a complete success.”

    But then, *you* don’t depend for your budget on the man whose State holds the Delta IV factory, now do you?

    Yes, Rand is right about launch frequency being a prime affective component of launch proficiency, as well.

    And yes, the subsidy ended in October 2019, which means the sharp pencils were out ever since then to cut costs.

  • Ray Van Dune

    ULA obviously doesn’t own the launchpad and all the infrastructure on it outright. Nor obviously is the launchpad and all the infrastructure owned by KSC / NASA. So who owns what, and what are the business arrangements that provide ULA the vehicle-specific stuff it needs, while ensuring that KSC / NASA can exercise proper stewardship over its facilities (including a large wildlife preserve)?

    I have no horse in this race… I don’t know the answer (or have an opinion on how it SHOULD work), but hopefully someone does?

  • Diane Wilson

    Ray, it’s probably like SpaceX’s arrangments for pads 39A and 40. NASA owns them, SpaceX leases them, SpaceX is responsible for maintenance on them, and since SpaceX only launches their own rockets on them, they are fully responsible for infrastructure maintenance. SpaceX has certainly done a lot of work on both pads, including rebuilding pad 40 after a Falcon 9 exploded on the pad during fueling, as well as their conversion of 39A from a shuttle launch facility to a Falcon launch facility. Also, more minor issues, such as fixing the LOX tank on pad 39A when NASA decided it was not safe.

  • Ray Van Dune

    So Diane, I take it you would say any infrastructure failures such as the current one are arguably due to lack of adequate ULA inspection and preventative maintenance? If so, that really does make a tangible linkage between low launch frequency (pad utilization) and per-launch upkeep costs, doesn’t it? Also means that if you get to “hose it off, gas it up , and launch it”, you are also exercising your infrastructure frequently and presumably staying on more top of “pad health” day to day! It’s a new day baby!

  • Edward

    I suspect that there is a combination of contributing factors, First: the equipment on the pad is likely aging since they were first installed. Next, ULA did not design simple rockets with simple ground equipment, and this complexity may be catching up to them. Finally, ULA has been pressured to reduce costs, and pad maintenance may have been one place where expenditures were reduced, making this another factor that could be catching them by surprise.

    Hopefully, Vulcan will be less complex and less expensive.

  • David

    Another hotfire abort. What, exactly, does ULA actually have to offer at this point?

  • pawn

    Do they dump/flare the LH2 or recycle it? That’s a lot of commodity getting used if they dump it. And it all has to be trucked in from LA if I remember correctly. How many scrubs can they handle before the LH2 (and/or LOX for that matter) is depleted? I know they have a gas plant on MI but still there is a limited production rate.

    A long time ago I suggested that they build a LH2 plant near KSC that uses the natural gas line that runs down the East Coast. Probably not a good idea as the consumption rate is low but I recall the loss rates in trucking are very high.

  • pawn

    NRO payloads require vertical integration. ULA has a choke-hold on this. I’m hope the new contract is going to force some changes. I could be wrong, I’ve been gone from there a long time and I’m out of the loop.

    I miss it a lot but I’m too old now to do what I’m good at there now (at least that is what HR thinks)

  • sippin_bourbon

    SpaceX just aborted their launch this morning as well.

  • mikee

    Not one comment here about possible sabotage of the launch. Well, here’s one. It should be considered, and even the possibility of sabotage should be prevented.

  • Pat Myers

    I know that on this site (like most other space related sites) it’s “ULA = bad because not SpaceX”, but as someone who has been watching this sort of activity for well over 50 years, I can tell you that sometimes you will get a launch where a lot of niggling little problems will crop up, causing a string of launch scrubs. It happens. It will happen to SpaceX too, if it has not already. Nature of the beast, and all that.

    At least they are catching these problems prior to launch, and so avoiding a “big red cloud” where a very expensive rocket and payload used to be.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I take it that all current boosters have automated launch-control systems that can halt the launch up to the last second?

    The first such halt I recall was a Titan / Gemini that actually started its engines on the pad, and then shut down. This provided a subsequent opportunity to launch two Gemini missions back to back and have the spacecraft fly together, a mission that I do not think was originally part of the program. I still recall the novelty of seeing video of a manned spacecraft in orbit up close, and unexpectedly seeing for the first time the trailing ribbon-like remnants of the stage-separation hardware.

  • I agree that I should have given ULA credit for catching all the issues, prior to launch, thus avoiding a total launch failure. However, if you don’t see a qualitative difference between the two companies, you are being intellectually dishonest.

    Both have had technical issues for sure. Both have successfully spotted them before launch (witness SpaceX’s own launch abort this morning). However, for ULA number of different problems in different places found on different countdowns is very very worrisome. It implies either a failure at proper maintenance or a failure to fix some fundamental design problems.

    We don’t see this kind of pattern with SpaceX. If they abort it is for one reason, and it appears routinely that they not only get it fixed, they fix it so it doesn’t pop up another time.

    With this particular ULA Delta launch my impression is that ULA is merely patching each problem, just to get off the ground. I recognize they intend to retire the Delta for these reasons as well as its high cost and complexity, but this pattern must be noted.

  • wayne

    Ray Van Dune–
    here we go….

    Aborted Launch – Gemini 6
    12-12-65 CBS News
    https://youtu.be/htmd4BrNJ5k
    6:22

  • sippin_bourbon

    “I know that on this site (like most other space related sites) it’s “ULA = bad because not SpaceX”,”

    Um..no.

    I know several people, including myself, have stated many times, we want to see them all succeed.

  • Matt in AZ

    Ray & Wayne, it’s good thing Gemini 6 didn’t rely on its escape system there. The crew would have rocketed out via ejection seats… from a high-pressurized pure oxygen cabin.

  • Edward

    Pat Myers wrote: “I know that on this site (like most other space related sites) it’s “ULA = bad because not SpaceX”, but as someone who has been watching this sort of activity for well over 50 years, I can tell you that sometimes you will get a launch where a lot of niggling little problems will crop up, causing a string of launch scrubs.

    Having worked in the industry, I understand that niggling little problems crop up at every stage of operations from manufacturing through launch and through the mission. ULA is not bad because it is not SpaceX, and in fact ULA is not bad. ULA is expensive, but it also has very few failures. ULA has good ideas for the future, including several services that is outside of SpaceX’s purview.

    SpaceX has challenged the launch industry, and ULA is one of the companies that has accepted the challenge. One of the advantages that SpaceX has over ULA is simplicity of vehicle and simplicity of operations. It has made compromises with some performance in order to create cost efficiencies, and these lower costs are winning out over the performance losses. The simplicity helps to avoid the niggling little problems, so I suspect that SpaceX will have fewer of these, especially since they are working hard to design them out of their systems, operations., and missions in order to create a rapid cadence in launches. .

    I believe that SpaceX has so many fans because it is doing so much that has not been done before, its Starship manufacturing and test facilities are so easily viewed by the curious public, and the curious spend a lot of time watching what goes on during a development and test program. Its openness makes it popular with those interested in space.

    ULA has its fans, too, and has its own form of openness:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0fG_lnVhHw (Smarter Every Day: ULA tour, 1 hour)

    Do note that Robert keeps us up to date on other developments, tests, and operations of companies other than SpaceX, and I think that is one of the reasons that this site is popular.

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