Spaceflight Now: Atlas Launch Report

First Atlas 3 gives Lockheed Martin 'exhilarating' ride

Posted: May 26, 2000

The first Atlas 3 rocket lifts off from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday. Photo: Lockheed Martin/ILS
Lockheed Martin officials were still savoring the sweet thrill of success on Thursday, one day after the Atlas 3 rocket flew a perfect inaugural flight.

"In this business, you live and die by good launches," said John Karas, a senior company engineer who helped create the new rocket. "We were very blessed by the Lord to have a very successful launch on the first try."

The 29-minute flight to deliver a European communications satellite into Earth orbit began with a thunderous liftoff at 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT) from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Initial examination of data collected during launch revealed no problems with the rocket or its Russian-made RD-180 engine, Karas told reporters on Thursday afternoon.

"We did not have really any surprises with the vehicle...the Centaur performed better than nominal...and the RD-180 gave us a superb ride."

"Our engine performed absolutely everything that was required," said Vladamir Chvanov, first deputy general director and general designer for RD-180 builder NPO Energomash of Khimky, Russia. "It performed nominally as confirmed by all parameters and characteristics."

The rocket placed its cargo -- Eutelsat's W4 satellite -- into a better orbit than planned, extending the French-built craft's life expectancy from 15 to 17 years by saving its precious onboard fuel supply.

"They had to chain me to my seat," Karas said with a laugh. "It was an exhilarating ride!"

The unique camera view of pad 36B shows the Atlas 3 rocket launching with the mobile service tower seen on the right. Photo: Lockheed Martin/ILS
The launch marked the fifth new version of the venerable Atlas rocket to fly in the past 10 years, all of which were successful. Wednesday's launch also marked the 50th straight mission success for the Atlas fleet dating back to 1993.

More importantly, the success will help Lockheed Martin and its marketing arm -- International Launch Services -- to promote the next-generation Atlas 5 rocket fleet slated to debut in 2002.

The Atlas 3 is viewed as an evolutionary step to the Atlas 5 family with both rocket lines sharing about 80 percent of the same parts, engines and avionics. The only major difference between the two is the new and larger fuel tank for Atlas 5.

"What excites me the most in interfacing with customers is the fact we have now retired about 80 percent of risk on the Atlas 5 program," said Dennis Dunbar, ILS' vice president for mission management and technical operations. "We have flight proven the RD-180 and the single engine Centaur.

"It is very exciting to take that message out to the customer community."

Jokingly, Karas has coined a new marketing slogan: "We are the thrust you can trust."

The Atlas 5 is Lockheed Martin's vision for capturing a greater share in the fiercely competitive commercial satellite launching market, going head-to-head with Europe's Arianespace Ariane 4 and 5 rockets and Boeing's developing Delta 4 family of boosters.

The Atlas 3 rocket begins its arc over the Atlantic Ocean moments after liftoff. Photo: Lockheed Martin/ILS
ILS hopes to soon announce "several" new orders for Atlas 3 rockets since the first launch was successful, Dunbar said.

"Five of (Atlas 3s) have been sold and we expect the phone will be ringing off the hook over the next few weeks to book up some more."

The next Atlas 3 launch is expected in early 2001 -- once engineers conduct a thorough review of the six megabytes of data gathered during the first launch -- with as many as 18 possible over the couple of years before being phased out in favor of Atlas 5.

Officials are still jubilant with the stunning video beamed back by a pair of video cameras mounted on the rocket.

"(The video) probably surprised us the most about the whole flight, which we all kind of expected, but until you see it you can't describe it," Karas said. "We saw things we had never seen before."

The company would like to fly more cameras in the future. However, the cost is not cheap. Lockheed Martin spent $500,000 for the cameras, installation and Range support to transmit the video from tracking stations to Cape Canaveral.

"More than likely you will see other flights with them and I would like see spacecraft separation."

Both cameras flown Wednesday were pointed downward and could not see deployment of the satellite from the Centaur upper stage.

Back at Complex 36, meanwhile, work is already underway for the next Atlas launch on June 29.

Technicians this week stacked the Atlas and Centaur stages for an Atlas 2A vehicle destined to launch NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-H from pad 36A.

At pad 36B where the Atlas 3 lifted off, inspections revealed no additional damage than normal, and efforts have started to transform the pad's systems back to a configuration to support the smaller Atlas 2 rockets. The next launch from pad 36B is planned for mid-July to loft the EchoStar 6 direct-to-home TV satellite.

"Yeah we celebrated, we partied, we inspected the pad and now we are back in business," said Adrian Laffitte, Lockheed Martin's director of launch operations at Cape Canaveral.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Atlas 3A (AC-201)
Payload: Eutelsat's W4
Launch date: May 24, 2000
Launch window: 2139-2358 GMT (5:39-7:58 p.m. EDT)
Launch site: SLC-36B, Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Photo gallery
Launch - Images of the Atlas 3A rocket's inaugural launch.

Video vault
The inaugural Lockheed Martin Atlas 3A rocket launches from Cape Canaveral with the Eutelsat W4 satellite.
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A video camera mounted to the side of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3A rocket shows the successful liftoff from Cape Canaveral's pad 36B.
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The Atlas booster stage separates and the payload fairing is jettisoned as seen by a video camera mounted to the side of rocket.
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A camera attached to the Centaur upper stage shows the Atlas booster stage being released and ignition of the RL-10 engine.
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Watch the planned sequence of events as the inaugural Atlas 3A rocket carries the Eutelsat W4 telecommunications satellite into orbit.
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Lockheed Martin's John Karas explains how the Atlas 3A will accelerate from Earth much faster than previous Atlas rockets.
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Learn about the engines and stages of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3A rocket that will launch the Eutelsat W4 satellite.
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The Russian RD-180 engine is test fired at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to prepare for use aboard the Atlas 3 rocket.
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The first Lockheed Martin Atlas 3A rocket is assembled at Cape Canaveral's pad 36Bfor the inaugural launch.
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Eutelsat's W4 telecommunications satellite undergoes final pre-launch processing work in Florida.
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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.

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.