2011: Atlas and Delta launch $20 billion in payloadsBY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: January 2, 2012
It was a flawless 2011 for United Launch Alliance's Atlas and Delta rocket families highlighted by deploying a $6 billion batch of big-name NASA missions and lending imperative space-lift support to U.S. national security.
ULA also capped its fifth year of operations, a marriage dating to Dec. 1, 2006 between Lockheed Martin's Atlas and Boeing's Delta programs under one joint organization to efficiently deliver Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle services to the U.S. government.
The Colorado-headquartered firm has carried out 56 launches in its first 60 months, all successfully, including 30 military flights, 17 NASA missions and 9 commercial ones.
"We like to focus on the rockets and all the incumbent smoke, fire and thunder -- the most visible part of any space mission. That's really cool, but the main part of what we do is seen by what these spacecraft provide flying around the globe and throughout the solar system," said ULA President and CEO Michael Gass.
"In the midst of launching once a month and meeting our commitments to the government, we forged a new world-class company in every way," Gass said. "We consolidated from five major manufacturing sites down to two, consolidating all of our engineering program functions we relocated over 500 people, we reduced our footprint and employment levels by over 20 percent from the pre-consolidation point while increasing our output by nearly double at the same time."
Faced with no sizable commercial market share to spread the costs, the government pushed for ULA's creation to keep both Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles flying for assured access to space. The EELV program was born in the 1990s as a modular system that would carry all of the military's satellite programs -- from the smallest weather observatories to gigantic spy satellites.
"I strongly believe that the decision to consolidate the Boeing and Lockheed rocket businesses was the right one for the companies, the right decision for the industry and the right decision for our nation. The Atlas and Delta EELV launch capabilities we have today, the size of the vehicles, the number and locations of launch sites, the production capacity, the launch rate capacity, range of mission-unique services, the level of reliability and mission assurance, (even the) size of the air conditioning systems are all fundamentally driven by the customer mission needs' tolerance for risk," said Gass.
"Launch is driven by the space architecture, not the other way around. We don't build satellites so we could launch rockets, we launch rockets so satellites could do their mission. We formed ULA so we could be focused like a laser on all of our customers' missions as cost-effectively with the highest reliability. Our customers' needs, our nation's security, our scientists' precious spacecraft depend on it."
Originally viewed as the Hatfields working with the McCoys, ULA had to blend the Atlas and Delta cultures, cross-training technicians and engineers to handle both programs while continuing to conduct vital launches.
"Over the past five years, we have been focused on mission success, consolidation and continuous improvement. Specifically...providing more operational flexibility through improved efficiency, delivering on our promises to consolidate the EELV program, which was a complex arrangement that had two companies with two separate sets of infrastructures, two sets of procedures, two sets of systems, two separate teams of people delivering launch services with two products -- to the current state of one company, one infrastructure, one team of people delivering launch services with our two products more efficiently for our nation," said Gass.
Looking back to 2011, the year began on a spectacular note in January with the maiden launch of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, becoming the largest booster ever flown from the West Coast. It deployed a crucial replacement craft for the National Reconnaissance Office's sophisticated imaging satellite constellation that captures exquisitely detailed views of the world from polar orbits for policy-makers and warfighters. (See coverage)
The Atlas 5 kicked off its year in March by hauling the Pentagon's second experimental X-37B, America's miniature military space shuttle, into Earth orbit to begin a secretive mission that continued circling the planet throughout the year. (See coverage)
Then came a medium-class Delta 4 from Cape Canaveral with another NRO spacecraft in March, this one headed into geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles high to serve as a data-relay bird from low-altitude spacecraft like the imaging spy satellites. (See coverage)
While NASA had an agressive schedule of sending up its science missions in the second-half of the year, the NRO completed its own whirlwind of 6 launches in 7 months between 2010 and 2011 when an Atlas 5 thundered away from Vandenberg in April with a pair of formation-flying ocean surveillance spacecraft. (See coverage)
The long-awaited next generation in early-warning missile detection got underway with a good flight by the Atlas 5 with SBIRS GEO-1 in May from the Cape to alert the national leadership and battlefield commanders of when threats launch. (See coverage)
The NASA surge commenced in June from California when a Delta 2 rocket launched the SAC-D satellite fitted with the Aquarius oceanography instrument to map the saltiness of Earth's seas from space for environmental research. (See coverage)
Upgrading the Global Positioning System with the second of an advanced breed of Block 2F navigation satellites occurred in July when a Delta 4 vehicle inserted the spacecraft directly into the constellation, making the 50th successful launch of a GPS craft by the Delta family dating to 1989. (See coverage)
Then came Juno, a solar-powered probe headed to study Jupiter's origins, interior structure, atmospheric dynamics and polar magnetosphere, beginning its 1.8-billion-mile trek to the king of planets atop the super-powerful Atlas 5-551 vehicle from the Cape in August. (See coverage)
History was written in September when the 150th Delta 2 rocket blasted off with NASA's twin lunar gravity-mapping GRAIL satellites on their voyage from the Earth to Moon. What's more, it marked the 259th and final Delta launch to originate from Cape Canaveral's Complex 17. (See coverage)
What's potentially the final-ever flight for the Delta 2, although five more remain in inventory with the hope of future sales, roared away from Vandenberg at the end of October carrying a dual-purpose Earth-observing satellite whose data will take the planet's environmental pulse daily for global weather forecasting and tracking long-term changes in the climate. Over its remarkable life, the Delta 2 logged 149 fully successful flights, including a run of 96 consecutive. (See coverage)
The year was capped in fine style with another Atlas 5 and the Mars Science Laboratory that aims to put the most advanced roving vehicle on the surface of another world -- the car-sized Curiosity rover to scout the landscape in Gale Crater to determine if the region of the Red Planet was ever hospitable to life. (See coverage)
In all, ULA's rocket fleet carried an estimated $20 billion of satellite hardware into space in 2011, setting up important missions in Earth orbit and hurling probes on their routes to the Moon, Mars and Jupiter.
"I'm in awe of the numerous miracles that occur every time," said Gass of his company's launches.
"As an engineer, I'm accustom to operate like the Nike credo goes 'just do it.' We're always focused on the future, getting that next mission launched successfully, we tend not to boast for various reasons including the most important one -- we're introverts -- and the other part -- we're superstitious."
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