After 29 years and 154 launches from two states, the workhouse Delta II rocket will ride into retirement early Saturday with a final blastoff of the distinctive blue booster from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Liftoff of the last United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg is planned for 5:46 a.m. during a 40-minute window.
The rocket, which stands nearly 13 stories tall, will carry NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat-2, equipped with a laser to collect measurements showing changes to the height of Earth’s ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and vegetation.
Hundreds of people who worked on the Delta II program through the years are expected to attend the launch to see the final blastoff, fog willing.
Among those in the crowd will be Santa Maria Valley resident Bill Sobczak, who oversaw construction to raise the SLC-2 mobile service tower 10 feet in the early 1990s to accommodate the Delta II rocket.
He worked for the companies through 43 of 45 Delta II launches from Vandenberg.
“We can’t get away from it,” he said of the those planning to unite for the final blastoff. “Even though we don’t work there any more, we have an affinity for the old rocket program.”
Those who gather will represent three different eras for the Delta manufacturer.
The original maker of Delta II rockets, McDonnell Douglas Corp., later merged with The Boeing Company. On Dec. 1, 2006, Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. joined their Delta and Atlas rocket manufacturing and launch operations to create the joint venture, United Launch Alliance.
Instead of the hardware, Sobczak said celebrations of the program’s ending should focus on the thousands of people involved in Delta II through the years ranging from the engineers to the janitors.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Sobczak said. “It wasn’t just a job. Everybody really lived it. And that is what was fun about Delta because it had such a history to it.”
The rocket’s retirement comes as manufacturers no longer build satellites requiring the capabilities of a Delta II class of rocket.
“This is the end of an era, as we prepare to launch the final Delta II rocket,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of government and commercial programs. “This vehicle has truly created a legacy throughout its history launching NASA, critical U.S. military satellites and commercial clients.”
While the East Coast saw the first Delta II launch in 1989, Vandenberg had to wait a bit longer before the rocket’s West Coast debut in 1995.
Since then, Delta II launched itself into the history books by carrying 60, or the majority, of the first-generation of Iridium communication satellites to space on 12 rockets between 1998 and 2002. Most of those occurred within an 18-month span.
Winning the contract to carry the majority of the Iridium satellites meant fast growth for the SLC-2 workforce because Vandenberg needed its own launch crew instead of sharing duties with the East Coast team.
“We launched more rockets than we’d ever launched before, than anybody had launched before from one pad,” Sobczak said.
Several commercial satellites to image Earth also rode Delta II rockets to space including those now providing pictures for Google Earth.
“Now you can look in your backyard. Why is that? Well, Delta did that.”
Multiple Earth-observation spacecraft for NASA also credit Delta for their placement in space.
A number of international satellites also employed Delta II, bringing customers from Canada, Italy, France and Argentina.
From the East Coast, Delta II rockets lifted a number of Global Positioning System satellites into orbit, as space-based navigation evolved from military equipment for U.S. troops around the globe to an everyday tool in people’s smartphones.
“I loved my job. I enjoyed going to work every day,” Sobczak said, noting satisfaction at delivering a satellite to space for customers.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.