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ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy: Launch abort at T-3 seconds tonight

Delta 4 Heavy immediately after engine shutdown

UPDATE: It appears ULA will need at least a week to analyze the situation before attempting another launch. It also appears that SpaceX is going forward with its two launches on August 30.

Tonight’s attempt by ULA to launch a National Reconnaissance Satellite on its Delta 4 Heavy rocket was aborted at T-3 seconds when the rocket’s main engines did an automatic abort. The image to the right shows the rocket immediately after the engines shut down, the smoke clearing and the rocket still sitting on the launch pad.

They are presently unfueling the rocket and will not launch tonight. They have not set a new launch date, and there is also no word on whether this launch delay will force delays in the two SpaceX launches set for August 30th. My guess is that the issue tonight will take time to assess, so they will give up their place in line and let SpaceX proceed as planned.

In watching ULA’s broadcast tonight, as well as reviewing the issues that prevented launch two days ago, I was struck by several things. First, ULA’s promo films to tout the wonders of the Delta family of rockets actually made them seem incredibly clunky and complex. There seemed to be too many pieces and complex operations to get the rocket ready for launch, which makes sense as Delta rockets are very costly and not competitive with today’s market. This is the exact reason ULA is in the process of retiring the entire Delta family. They will complete the already purchased and scheduled launches, but in the future will use their new Vulcan rocket for similar future bids.

Second, the number of minor and major technical issues during both countdowns reinforced my impressions above. This is a very complex rocket to launch, and that complexity apparently leads to many issues that make launch difficult.

For the scrub on August 26 they first had two blown fuses in a launchpad heater that had to be replaced, then a pneumatics system issue that was apparently not solved during the countdown. When they scrubbed, however, they said they did it because of “several problems,” not just this one.

On tonight’s launch they first had an issue with a fuel valve, then several fuel sensor alarms gave them problems, requiring them to disable them to proceed, then the temperatures in the payload electronics posed an issue that after some analysis was considered acceptable. These issues caused the launch to be delayed by about an hour and a half.

Finally, the rocket’s main engines shut down at the rescheduled lift-off time.

It might not be fair, but in comparing this ULA launch effort with the numerous countdowns by SpaceX the differences were stark. SpaceX has had comparable few issues during recent launches, with only one launch recently scrubbed due to a technical issue in July. Moreover, the company’s launch team has several times had similar launch aborts at T-0, and still were able to recycle everything and proceed to launch immediately.

All these impressions once again suggest that ULA is making the right decision to retire Delta. That it is going to take them several more years however to launch several more government surveillance satellites raises questions about the decisions of our government to pay for such a unwieldy and expensive rocket. There now are better and cheaper options available.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • Rockribbed1

    I was very excited about five launches this weekend, but I’m happy to see four. I hope to visit Florida soon for a weekend of watching several launches. Eventually it will be so routine that no one will pay attention.

  • Ray Van Dune

    The NASASpaceFlight webcast says the the SpaceX SAOComm launch cannot proceed while the NROL DELTA 4 Heavy is on the pad, due to the polar trajectory of the SpaceX launch overflying the ULA pad. Cape Canaveral pads seem to be laid out generally N-S, which seems problematic for polar orbit launches. Is the only way to get the Delta out of the way to launch it?

    SpaceX must be pissed.

  • Ray Van Dune: This info suggests that the Starlink launch will go forward, however, as it does not have a north-south trajectory.

  • Richard M

    I think it’s high time to retire Delta, too – it’s far too expensive and inefficient. Because ULA’s stakeholders have zero interest in anything other than siphoning out as much cash from the Air Force as possible for as little investment possible,
    it keeps flying. Honestly, if it weren’t for Congress demanding an end to use of Russian engines in natsec launches, I gravely doubt that Vulcan would ever have been undertaken, even in the face of SpaceX competition.

    That said, I think credit has to be given where credit is due. The Air Force watched expensive spy sat after expensive spy sat get blown up on failed launches in the 80’s and 90’s. What they desperately needed was reliability. And Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V have delivered that. They hit all the reference orbits the Air Force insists on, they do it reasonably timely, and they don’t ever blow up. That is no small thing.

    But now that SpaceX has shown that it is possible to have reliability AND low cost – and innovation! – that’s no longer enough. Delta IV has had its day. It’s time to move on.

  • Brightdark

    Can SpaceX move the booster and payload from LC-39 to the other pad? It would take a few days of course but then they could launch.

  • Ray Van Dune

    StarLink can launch due to the fact its trajectory is to the northeast, a more standard azimuth for launches from the cape.

    And while StarLink is an in-house launch, SAOComm is a paying customer.

  • LocalFluff

    Aaand lift-off…
    A second too early there this time, mister countdowner.

  • LocalFluff

    The very moment of the failure here. I think it’s a funny comment felled from a tongue! Then the crickets kicks in, and the silence of night and of the brains not actually employed, but such pretended:

    I don’t blame anyone, this stuff is pretty hard to do!
    But I love how giants like this are huffing and puffing their temperate gasses on their launch pads. I promise you that even brutal bloody Vikings would’ve been mighteley impressed a thousand years ago!

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “There seemed to be too many pieces and complex operations to get the rocket ready for launch, which makes sense as Delta rockets are very costly and not competitive with today’s market. … This is a very complex rocket to launch, and that complexity apparently leads to many issues that make launch difficult.

    SpaceX very purposefully designed Falcon to be less complex in order to assure that it would be less expensive. It was for this reason that SpaceX chose to not use liquid hydrogen in the upper stage but to go with the much easier and less expensive to use RP1 for both stages. LH2 needs to be chilled to close to absolute zero, and that leads to tremendous boil off and much extra ground support equipment. The engine for both stages is practically the same, with the upper stage engine optimized for use in vacuum. This also simplifies operations as well as manufacturing.

    A question for ULA is whether they have sufficiently simplified Vulcan, because recovering and reusing the first stage engines can only go so far in reducing the launch price tag in order to be competitive with SpaceX and Blue Origin.

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