Spaceflight Now: Atlas Launch Report

Fishing tournament, engine glitch scrub Atlas 3 launch

Posted: May 20, 2000

The Atlas 3A rocket waits on its launch pad Saturday. The historic Cape Canaveral lighthouse is seen south of Complex 36. Photo: Lockheed Martin video/Spaceflight Now
A celebrity fishing tournament and a last-minute software problem conspired to scrub Lockheed Martin's fourth try at launching its inaugural Atlas 3A rocket during a bizarre countdown Saturday at Cape Canaveral.

For nearly 2 1/2 hours, a Coast Guard cutter and two Air Force helicopters radioed over 70 boats that were inside the restricted launch danger area beneath the rocket's flight path.

The boats, part of the Cal Dixon Offshore Classic fishing contest, were scattered miles east of the Central Florida coastline.

Liftoff of the $100 million Atlas 3A rocket -- the first American booster to be powered by a Russian-made engine -- was slated for 5:38 p.m. EDT. But the launch time was initially pushed back 10 minutes after the countdown was temporarily halted while engineers examined a sticky liquid oxygen valve at pad 36B.

That glitch, which was also experienced during an earlier launch attempt on Wednesday, was quickly solved and the countdown resumed.

Just before 5:30 p.m. EDT, however, the U.S. Air Force-run Eastern Range reported fishing boats had been spotted in the safety zone. The closer the Range looked, the more boats were found.

The Range provides critical communications, tracking and safety services to all Florida launches, and is responsible for ensuring the restricted danger zones are clear of air and sea traffic before a rocket is allowed to lift off.

On pad
A view of the fully fueled rocket from the Press Site 1 at Cape Canaveral. Photo: Lockheed Martin video/Spaceflight Now
The boats needed to leave the area for their own safety in case the rocket exploded during the early portions of flight. Such a mishap would send fiery debris and deadly fuels showering the Atlantic Ocean below.

The Air Force said the organizers of the fishing event had been warned of the scheduled launch and were told to keep boats clear of the restricted zone.

The annual tournament began at 6:30 a.m. EDT Saturday and catches were to be weighed by 5 p.m., followed by an autograph session with Dixon, a former professional football player. With the fishing to be completed before the scheduled launch time, the Air Force did not expect the event to impact the liftoff.

At 6:45 p.m. EDT, the Air Force said 73 boats from the tournament had yet to return to Port Canaveral, with the Coast Guard finding the craft anywhere from just a few miles off shore to nearly 40 miles east of the Cape.

About 150 boats were believed to be part of the contest.

In a last ditch effort to launch the rocket before the close of the available two-hour, 19-minute window, Lockheed Martin was prepared to count down to T-minus 40 seconds to give the Range a few more minutes to chase away the boats.

But as the countdown was restarting from T-minus 5 minutes, the Range was suddenly reported "go" after the boats had been successfully cleared. Clocks began ticking toward liftoff at 7:57 p.m. EDT, the very last moment to launch Saturday.

At T-minus 2 minutes and 15 seconds, however, the countdown grounded to a halt when the launch team received a computer error message as RP-1 kerosene fuel was flowing into the Russian-made RD-180 engine. This "fuel-filling" process prepares the $10 million powerplant for ignition.

With no time to understand the problem, Lockheed Martin officials were forced to postpone the debut launch of Atlas 3 again.

Vapors vent from the Atlas 3A rocket as liquid oxygen is pumped aboard for launch at pad 36B on Saturday. Photo: Lockheed Martin video/Spaceflight Now
Troubleshooting shortly after the scrub indicated a minor software glitch was to blame. It was not immediately clear whether the problem could have been corrected and the countdown restarted if not for losing virtually the entire window to the boats.

Officials quickly rescheduled the launch for Sunday during a window of 5:38 to 7:57 p.m. EDT (2137-2357 GMT). A backup launch opportunity will be available on Monday, if needed.

However, weather conditions could be a problem on Sunday with a 40 percent thunderstorm clouds will delay the launch. Launch Weather Officer Jim Sardonia says Monday's forecast looks even worse with a 70 percent rain and thunderstorms over Cape Canaveral will keep the Atlas grounded.

It was the fourth scrub for this launch since Monday. The first try was scrubbed due to a different Range problem -- a faulty tracking radar in Bermuda. Tuesday saw unacceptable high altitude wind shears. The countdown made it to T-minus 29 seconds on Wednesday before a computer timing error aborted the attempt.

Lockheed Martin then had to wait until after the space shuttle Atlantis launched from nearby Kennedy Space Center on Friday morning before rescheduling the Atlas 3 flight.

Once launched, the Atlas 3 will carry the W4 spacecraft into Earth orbit for the European Telecommunications Satellite Organization, or Eutelsat. The satellite will fly 22,300 miles high, providing television, business communications and Internet services to Russia and parts of Africa.

Spaceflight Now will provide extensive live coverage of Sunday's launch with our Mission Status Center reports and a streaming video broadcast that will include views from two cameras mounted onboard the rocket.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Atlas 3A (AC-201)
Payload: Eutelsat's W4
Launch date: May 21, 2000
Launch window: 2138-2357 GMT (5:38-7:57 p.m. EDT)
Launch site: SLC-36B, Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Pre-launch briefing
Launch preview - Read our story for a complete preview of the first Atlas 3A launch.

Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

Atlas 3A vehicle data - Overview of the rocket that will launch W4 into space.

The RD-180 - Facts and figures about the Russian-built engine to power Atlas 3.

Eutelsat W4 - Description of the satellite to be launched on AC-201.

Launch windows - Available windows for future launch dates of AC-201.

Video vault
Watch the planned sequence of events as the inaugural Atlas 3A rocket carries the Eutelsat W4 telecommunications satellite into orbit.
  PLAY (775k, 2min 39sec QuickTime file)
Lockheed Martin's John Karas explains how the Atlas 3A will accelerate from Earth much faster than previous Atlas rockets.
  PLAY (230k, 1min 30sec QuickTime file)
Learn about the engines and stages of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3A rocket that will launch the Eutelsat W4 satellite.
  PLAY (342k, 49sec QuickTime file)
The Russian RD-180 engine is test fired at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to prepare for use aboard the Atlas 3 rocket.
  PLAY (155k, 23sec QuickTime file)
The first Lockheed Martin Atlas 3A rocket is assembled at Cape Canaveral's pad 36Bfor the inaugural launch.
  PLAY (500k, 1min 16sec QuickTime file)
Eutelsat's W4 telecommunications satellite undergoes final pre-launch processing work in Florida.
  PLAY (331k, 50sec QuickTime file)
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Inside the blockhouse

Step inside the historic Complex 36 Blockhouse where the 120 members of the launch team control every countdown and liftoff of Atlas rockets from Cape Canaveral.
  VIEW (286k QuickTime file)
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Explore the Net
International Launch Services - Lockheed Martin-led consortium which globally markets the U.S. Atlas and Russian Proton rockets.

Lockheed Martin Astronautics - U.S. company which builds and launches the Atlas family of rockets.

Eutelsat - European Telecommunications Satellite Organization will operate W4.

Alcatel Space - European company that built the Eutelsat W4 satellite.

3rd SLS - U.S. Air Force Space Launch Squadron responsible for the Atlas at Cape Canaveral.