Thursday, December 23, 2004

Delta-4 Launch

Some space news -- this interests El Jefe so it's worth a comment.
On Tuesday, the Air-Force’s new Delta-4 heavy booster appears to have had a disappointing test flight. Given the problems with the Space Shuttle, the Air Force is really going to be depending on the Delta-4, and probably the Atlas-5 to reliably launch its communications and intelligence satellites.

Tuesday launch’s, according to an article yesterday at Spaceflight Now, by Justin Ray, was evidently a disappointment. The strap-on boosters shut down and separated a full eight seconds early, causing the second stage to burn longer to place the Delta-4’s cargo into a parking orbit. Consequently, the Spaceflight Now article says, on the final orbital insertion burn, the second stage ran out of fuel before completing the burn, which would affect the orbit of the cargo.

The cargo in this case is two experimental “nanosatelites” with the cutesy nicknames “Ralphie” and "Sparkie.” Ralphie and Sparkie, constructed by a group of universities to study space photography, micropropulsion and communications, were originally supposed to orbit aboard the space shuttle in 2003 – but were left sitting when the Shuttles were grounded. However, the Air Force, wanting to test the Delta-4, put up $141 million and gave Ralphie and Sparkie a lift.

This story is interesting for a couple of reasons. Although the launch was apparently less than nominal, the Boeing officials interviewed for the Spaceflight Now story did not seem too put out about the problem, a spokesman saying that Boeing had “a very, very happy customer.” If I were the Big Rocketman for the Air Force, and I was planning to use this thing next year to put up, among other things, a missile warning satellite and a highly classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite (maybe one of the mysterious MISTY low-observable photorecon sats, or a PROWLER low-observable signals intelligence sat ?) – then I’d be pretty hopping mad about Mr. Boeing’s tinker-toy not working right. A premature shut-down like that is a really serious problem...or is it ?
Bear in mind we live in this great open fishbowl of a society where the government has to make public the team playbook, plus the family cookbook and almost all the recipes for secret sauce AND killer Cosmos out where the Bad Guys can read it. Sane people would make sure missile test data, let alone details of launches, remained as secret as possible. Not us though. That's so we can console ourselves that we live in a free country while the rest of the world reads our recipe books and tries to figure out how to pureé us.

Given these circumstances, one of the few disguises the Good Guys have is the Shell Game. Things ain't always what they seem. Were Ralphie and Sparkie alone or did they have company ? Either the Boeing guy is just doing his public relations thing, or maybe the early cutoff ain’t really a problem, but just a good story…

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