Left: United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Peterson)
Right: View from the inside of the Mobile Service Tower for a Delta IV Heavy rocket (Photo from United Launch Alliance)
During a visit to Vandenberg AFB, Capt. Jorge Martinez, an Education with Industry Fellow working with United Launch Alliance (ULA), observed two attempts to launch a Delta IV Heavy rocket. “I was not able to witness the launch during this trip, but was able to experience another reality of the launch business, a launch scrub—or as I see it, two unsuccessful, but insightful, launch attempts,” said Capt. Martinez.
The triple-core, hydrogen-fueled Delta IV Heavy, built and launched by ULA, has proven itself as the heavy lifter providing space launch capability for high-priority missions for the U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA. In the days leading up to launch, Capt. Martinez participated in many of the final preparation activities. The most notable was the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) where Mr. Lou Mangieri, ULA’s launch director, led the assessment of all aspects of mission readiness. Discussions on the status of pre-flight processing work, technical overviews of countdown and mission profile, and discussion on the weather forecast. The meeting ended with a unanimous ‘Go for Launch’ directed by all senior leaders.
The first launch attempt was scheduled for Friday, December 7 at around 8 p.m. from the southern end of Vandenberg AFB, Space Launch Complex (SLC)-6, or ‘Slick Six’ as it is commonly referred to. This launch pad has interesting history; it was originally constructed in the 1960s for the Manned Orbital Program and later modified in the 1980s to support the shuttle program. Neither programs launched from the pad; it wasn’t until the 2000s when after much refurbishment and modification, it was used to launch the Delta IV.
“This was my second launch day, and it was an exciting and rewarding day. It was a very unique experience to be part of the group of people who have been working extremely hard for many months leading up to this event,” said Martinez. From his location in the Remote Launch Complex Center (RLCC), Martinez watched and listened in on all the activities.
“Everything was proceeding as planned, but at T-minus 15 minutes and holding, right before cryogenic tanking, an issue with the ground electrical connection from the RLCC to the launch pad arose,” said Martinez. The launch was scrubbed and the Launch Director instructed the team to set up for a 24-hour countdown recycle in order to make another launch attempt the following day.
Twenty-four hours later, there was a look of determination on everyone’s face as preparations began for round two. “Everything was proceeding as planned, once we got past the second planned 15-minute hold and began fueling, confirming that yesterday’s communication link issue was resolved. As we continued to press towards terminal count down, I was beginning to feel the excitement build up and began to mentally prepare for launch,” said Martinez.
At T-minus 55 seconds and counting, verification came back that all three of the engines were ready for ignition and the Air Force’s Western Range confirmed ‘green’ conditions for launch. But then at T-minus 7.5 seconds a hold was called by the Terminal Countdown Sequencer Rack, prompting a scrub for the launch attempt. The team began detanking, started reviewing all the data, and worked to determine a path forward for a new launch attempt date.
The insight gained from the scrubbed launches provided Capt Martinez with a well-rounded understanding of the launch process and how teams of the experts work together to ensure sucess. “Not being able to see lift off was unfortunate, but I did get to observe a very important aspect of launch business,” shared Martinez. “I saw how the team quickly began establishing a recovery plan, and began discussing the way forward to overcome the logistical support challenges.”
EWI, a program sponsored by SAF/AQH and managed by the Air Force Institute of Technology, is a highly selective, competitive non-degree educational assignment within an industry related to the fellow’s career field.
The program is designed to develop qualities and abilities in selected officers and civilians necessary for effective management, professional, and technical leadership; and to provide an understanding of organizational structure, management methods, and technologies of modern industry. By studying the best practices of industry, students are able to bring new knowledge, understanding, and empathy back into the Air Force to improve its processes. In turn, the company benefits by receiving the fellow’s experience and perspective.