Despite a two-year lull since the last Delta 2 blastoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, one United Launch Alliance employee says doing the tasks to ready the rocket for its newest mission is “like riding a bicycle.”
The Delta 2 team members began reassembling late last year as equipment began arriving and the focus turned toward prepping the rocket for Tuesday morning’s liftoff with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 at Space Launch Complex-2.
“It was coming home for everybody,” said Doug Adams, who is the leader at the Delta 2 solid rocket motor processing facility but working on ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 programs at Vandenberg during the lull.
Liftoff of the Delta 2 rocket is planned for 2:56 a.m. Tuesday. The mission to study atmospheric carbon dioxide and its link to global climate change has a 30-second window each day to get off the ground. Weather will accommodate the launch, but the fog in the forecast threatens to foil spectators’ view.
Mission managers gathered for a launch readiness review Sunday and gave permission for the final preparations and the countdown to begin.
“In summary, the rocket is ready and the launch team is prepared and excited to be back in business with Delta 2 and poised to launch this important spacecraft for our nation,” said Tim Dunn, NASA launch manager.
To prepare for launch day, Adams’ team accepted delivery of the solid motors just before Christmas. From the time the solid motors arrive on base, “they’re my babies,” he said.
He and his colleagues process and attach the Delta 2’s solid rocket motors — each approximately 40 inches in diameter and 42 feet in length — to the side of nearly 13-story-tall Delta 2 rocket. The Delta 2 rockets can sport up to nine solid rocket motors depending on the size of the payload. For this mission, Delta 2 is equipped with three solid rocket motors, which will each provide 111,000 pounds of thrust.
Despite the fact the ULA hasn’t erected a Delta 2 rocket since 2011, processing for this mission has been smooth, he said.
“I think on everything that we’ve done as far as building the rocket has met or beat the timeline,” said Adams, who lives in Vandenberg Village.
He and colleagues build the systems required for the solid motors’ eventual jettison from Delta during flight, and, in case of a problem, their possible destruction.
Weeks before launch, the team took the solid motors to the launch pad to lift into place on the rocket.
“Anytime you hoist thirty thousand pounds of explosives it can be a little nerve-wracking,” Adams said. “You really don’t think about that stuff when you’re doing it. You have to be aware of it, but you don’t really think about it.”
Adams, 53, arrived at Vandenberg 12 years ago but started at the company when it was McDonnell Douglas Corp. and remained through the mergers and acquisitions that saw the firm become Boeing and United Launch Alliance.
He originally came to California from Connecticut to attend school to earn his airframe and powerplant license to become an airplane mechanic. A family connection led to applying for a job with McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach.
The job interview consisted of three questions: Do you like to work? Do you like to work overtime? Can you start Monday? He did.
In Huntington Beach, he began working on DC-9 aircraft and later moved to the Titan 4 fairing program which was ramping up after the Challenger shuttle explosion led to a national policy change that military satellites couldn’t fly on the manned orbiter.
“They were really needing people,” he said, estimating he spent 15 years on the Titan 4 fairing program.
He later worked about two years on space station program, a time that stands out in his career as he met astronauts and worked with the Russians on their docking mechanism.
“Somebody’s living in something you built. We built the payload. It wasn’t something that was manufactured and brought to us. We built what’s flying up there right now,” Adams said.
When layoffs loomed in Huntington Beach, Adams ended up at Vandenberg.
His first gig at Vandenberg took Adams at Space Launch Complex-6, the humongous former space shuttle facility repurposed for Delta 4 missions. He eventually transferred to Delta 2.
“When I came to Delta 2, it kind of felt like home,” he said. “It was a smaller place. It just kind of felt right. And I hate every time I have to leave and go to another pad. Everything’s real familiar (at SLC-2).”
While fond of his time on the space station program, he noted that launching rockets “is kind of special, too.”
“They always tell us there’s only a handful of people in the world that who can do this job so it’s good to be part of that and to carry on," Adams said. "Delta’s been launching forever. It’s kind of prestigious to carry on what started back in the Fifties and unfortunately will end in a couple of years.”
This is one of only five remaining Delta 2 rockets. With customers not building medium-sized satellites, Delta 2 no longer seemed economically feasible so production stopped with enough parts remaining for five final missions. Four of those rockets have since been purchased, extending the life of the workhorse space boosters a few more years after what appeared to be the final purchased Delta 2 rocket departure in 2011.
ULA officials note that this is the 152nd Delta 2 launch, 51st NASA mission on a Delta 2 and 42nd Delta 2 from SLC-2 at Vandenberg.
While Delta 2 carries out a variety of missions, including for NASA and commercial customers, Adams said he enjoys his work on the rocket.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re launching something that’s extremely expensive or something that’s inexpensive, everybody gets the same treatment and it’s just assured access to space. … The history speaks for itself,” he said. “Keeping up with that history and making sure everything’s done right and works the way it’s supposed to that’s the only thing that matters.”
Work on the next Delta 2 mission already began for Adams and his team with some equipment arriving in the past month.
But early Tuesday morning they will pause from those tasks and await confirmation of a job done well — seeing the solid rocket motors light, burn and fall away as planned, typically looking like a blinking red light falling back to Earth during a nighttime liftoff. They should be jettisoned some 99 seconds into flight.
“Once everything works right, that’s the reward,” Adams said.