ULA’s Delta Heavy successfully launches spy satellite for NRO

ULA today has successfully launched a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, using its Delta Heavy rocket, its largest rocket.

With this launch, ULA retires the Delta from any further launches from Vandenberg. Future California launches will use its as yet untested Vulcan rocket.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

42 SpaceX
38 China
12 Russia
7 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 59 to 38 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 59 to 58. The 59 launches makes this the third most active launch year in American history, trailing only 1966 (70 launches) and 1965 (64 launches).

SpaceX has a Falcon 9 launch of 52 Starlink satellites scheduled very shortly, so these numbers will hopefully go up again before the day is out.

Two launches from U.S. set for this afternoon

Both ULA and SpaceX have planned launches this afternoon a little over an hour apart, at 2:53 pm and 4:10 pm Pacific time respectively.

The ULA launch is first, and is the last Delta rocket launch from Vandenberg Space Force base. The company is slowly phasing this rocket out as it transitions to its not-yet-launched Vulcan rocket. The payload today is a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, using ULA’s biggest rocket, the Delta Heavy.

SpaceX will follow with another Falcon 9 Starlink launch, placing another 52 Starlink satellites into orbit.

I have embedded the live streams of both launches below.
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Delta Heavy launch aborts at T-7.5 seconds

A ULA Delta Heavy aborted its launch of a secret National Security Administration surveillance satellite last night at T-7.5 seconds.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the rocket’s three Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines started their ignition sequences, but a statement later released by ULA said the computer-controlled countdown sequencer ordered an abort at T-minus 7.5 seconds.

In the statement, ULA said the abort was “due to an unexpected condition during terminal count at approximately 7.5 seconds before liftoff. “The team is currently reviewing all data and will determine the path forward. A new launch date will be provided when available,” ULA said.

Obviously, there is no word yet on a new launch date.

ULA to trim working launchpads from 5 to 2

The competition heats up: In order to lower its fixed costs, ULA plans to reduce the number of launchpads it maintains from 5 to 2, one at Kennedy and Vandenberg respectively.

Right now they need to maintain three separate launchpads to operate the Delta 2, Delta 4, and Delta Heavy, which is the main reason the Delta family of rockets is so expensive. This is also the reason that the Delta 2 and Delta Heavy only launch from Vandenberg, as ULA has retired their launchpads at Kennedy.

It appears that ULA’s plan is to design their next generation rocket much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, with as simple as system of launch facilities as possible.

A photo tour of Vandenberg Air Force Base

Yesterday, as part of my visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base to give a space history lecture to the local section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, I was given a short tour of these west coast launch facilities. While Kennedy is used for launches that circle the equator, Vandenberg, with its southern-facing coast, launches rockets that head south over the ocean for a polar orbit.

We only had time to go inside one launchpad, where unfortunately I was not permitted to take pictures. However, the images I did get will give you a reasonable sense of the layout for this spaceport, which is increasingly becoming a spaceport for private launch companies like ULA and SpaceX. Though the bulk of business for both companies here might be military and government payloads, the future is still going to include a lot of private payloads. The images also help to highlight the differences between these two companies, as well as some past history, as one of these launchpads was once intended for the space shuttle, though never used for that purpose.
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