Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket has successful debut

Posted: February 21, 2002

The Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B launches on maiden voyage. Photo: ILS
After more than 40 years of flights using numerous reincarnations, the evolution of the American Atlas rocket took another step Thursday with the successful maiden launch of the largest and most powerful version of the storied booster - the Atlas 3B.

The spectacular blastoff from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station came at 7:43 a.m. EST (1243 GMT) as the Russian-made RD-180 main engine roared to life, propelling the 176-foot tall, 493,500-pound rocket into the Florida morning sky.

Thursday's launch -- the 570th for an Atlas vehicle -- was crucial not only to deliver a commercial direct-to-home TV broadcasting satellite into orbit, but also because the flight would test the new "stretched" Centaur upper stage, which will be used by Lockheed Martin's next-generation Atlas 5 family of launchers that begin flying in May.

"This mission is what I like to call two for one because not only was it the first of its kind Atlas 3B but also our Atlas 5 customers have clauses (in their contracts) that if we come up with issues with any common hardware, they have an opportunity to change launch services. So this was a very important launch," said John Karas, Lockheed Martin's vice president of Atlas programs. "To tell you the truth, I was more wrapped tight on this launch than AC-201 (the first Atlas 3-series launch)."

Liftoff was delayed a half-hour after two issues halted countdown activities before dawn, but the launch team had a 61-minute window in which to get the rocket airborne.

"We did use 30 minutes of the window. We did have a couple items that we had to work, mainly on the ground-side. None of them were really critical, but we wanted to make sure that took our time to do it right," said Lockheed Martin Launch Director Adrian Laffitte.

The Atlas 3B climbs into the sky on the power of the RD-180 engine. Photo: ILS TV/Spaceflight Now
Three minutes after liftoff, the Russian powerplant shut down and the spent Atlas first stage separated from the Centaur. Seconds later, the twin Pratt & Whitney-built RL-10 engines of the upper stage ignited for the first of two firings to deliver the EchoStar 7 satellite into orbit. The two burns were separated by a coast period.

About 28 1/2 minutes after liftoff, the EchoStar spacecraft was released from the Centaur over the west coast of Africa, just south of the equator, successfully completing the debut of Atlas 3B.

"It was a prefect shot," said Mark Albrecht, president of International Launch Services, which markets the Atlas rocket.

"We haven't seen any anomalies. It was a very, very smooth mission," Karas said at a news conference a couple hours after launch.

Remarkably, this was the sixth straight time in the past decade a new Atlas rocket has been launched successfully on its inaugural flight, all with paying cargos onboard. The launch also extended Lockheed Martin's consecutive string of successful Atlas flights to 59 dating back to 1993.

The RD-180 and Centaur engines performed better than expected, officials said, delivering EchoStar 7 into orbit much higher than required, which will allow the craft to save precious onboard fuel and extend its useful life by a couple of years.

"All in a all, a very nominal mission," Karas said. "We guarantee our customers a good lifetime on orbit and we exceeded that by at least a couple of years."

EchoStar 7 was placed into a highly elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbit of approximately 57,372 km at the high point and 186 km on the low end with an inclination of 22.88 degrees to the equator. The satellite will fire its onboard engine in a series of maneuvers to achieve a circular orbit of 36,000 km and reduce inclination, arriving in geostationary orbit where the craft will match Earth's rotation to appear parked above one spot of the globe -- 119 degrees West longitude over the equator.

  EchoStar 7
An artist's concept of EchoStar 7 in space. Photo: Lockheed Martin
From that vantage point, EchoStar 7 will replace the EchoStar 4 spacecraft that has suffered technical problems affecting its ability to relay programming to the subscribers of the direct-to-home satellite TV service called DISH Network. EchoStar has over 6 million subscribers across the U.S.

In addition, EchoStar 7, built by Lockheed Martin, will beam local TV channels to Alaska and Hawaii, allowing DISH Network subscribers there to watch their local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates and other stations.

"We are excited about having more channels, improving our quality and more backup in outer space and now bringing local television to Alaska and Hawaii with this spacecraft," said Charlie Ergen, CEO of EchoStar. "We forward look to getting it online...in April."

This was the second launch for an Atlas 3 rocket. The first was successfully flown in May 2000 using the Atlas 3A version with a regular-sized Centaur.

The Atlas 3B is distinguished from previous Atlas launchers because it uses the new "Common Centaur" upper stage. Standing 38 1/2-foot tall, the new stage is 5 1/2-feet longer than the Centaur currently used by the Atlas 2 and 3A rockets.

The stretched stage enables more fuel to be carried than its predecessor, allowing its engines to fire longer so heavier satellites can be launched. The enhancement results in 1,000 pounds of additional payload that the 3B can launch into geosynchronous transfer orbit over the 3A.

Various versions of the cryogenically-fueled Centaur have been flying for more than 30 years on Atlas and Titan rockets, launching commercial, military and scientific satellites into space. NASA had planned to use the stage aboard space shuttles starting in 1986, but scrapped that idea after the Challenger accident due to safety concerns.

A close-up of the two-nozzle RD-180 engine during Thursday's launch. Photo: ILS TV/Spaceflight Now
The RD-180 was developed by NPO Energomash of Khimky, Russia, building upon the proven heritage of the RD-170 powerplant incorporated into Russia's Energia-Buran space shuttle, the Energia-M and Ukrainian Zenit rockets.

Karas said both times the RD-180 engine has flown the results have shown the powerplant performed "above spec." The engine will be used by all versions of the Atlas 5 family of rockets.

The engine is considered to be the most efficient in its class. It consumes RP-1 fuel, a highly refined kerosene, and super-cold liquid oxygen.

Each powerplant has two thrust chambers and two bell-shaped nozzles that swivel during the launch to steer the rocket. The engine produces up to 933,400 pounds of thrust. It is throttled up and down to ease the stresses the rocket experiences throughout the launch.

Because of the RD-180 guzzles more liquid oxygen than American-made engines used on older Atlas rockets, the Atlas 3's first stage was stretched 10 feet to accommodate the longer oxidizer tank.

Pratt & Whitney Space Propulsion of West Palm Beach, Florida, financed the development of the RD-180 for the Atlas 3 program. Pratt and NPO Energomash are equal partners of RD AMROSS, the joint venture formed to market, sell and distribute the RD-180 engines.

International Launch Services, the joint U.S./Russian venture between Lockheed Martin, Khrunchiev and Energia to globally market the Atlas and Russian Proton rockets, says a total of eight Atlas 3 rockets are being built to fly through December 2004. Of those vehicles, six have been sold and two have now already flown. The next Atlas 3 launch is scheduled for late-May.

Lockheed Martin has used the Atlas 3 as an evolutionary step to the next-generation Atlas 5, reducing the risk along the way. The Atlas 3A proved the RD-180 engine worked and the Atlas 3B has tested the "stretched" Centaur.

Karas said 85 percent of the first Atlas 5 rocket has now been flight tested. The only major piece left untested for the inaugural Atlas 5 configuration is the Common Core Booster, which serves as the first stage for all Atlas 5s.

The Atlas 5 fleet, developed as part of the U.S. Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, will feature several different versions, all designed to be more reliable, provide higher performance and cost less to build.

Illustration of the current and future Atlas rocket family. Photo: Lockheed Martin
Although Thursday's launch set records for the biggest and most powerful Atlas, those records will be broken in less than three months by the inaugural Atlas 5. The maiden voyage of Atlas 5 is scheduled to set sail May 9 carrying Eutelsat's Hot Bird 6 direct broadcasting satellite.

Lockheed Martin has a total of eight Atlas launches planned in 2002. Thursday's was the first of the year. Next up is the launch of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-I (TDRS-I) aboard an Atlas 2A rocket on March 8 from pad 36A.

Now showing
For Spaceflight Now+Plus service (subscribers only):

This footage shows the key pre-launch milestones to prepare the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket for its maiden launch, including arrival at the Cape and stacking on the pad.
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The EchoStar 7 direct-to-home TV broadcasting satellite undergoes launch preparations at a processing facility near Cape Canaveral, including encapsulation into the payload fairing. It is then transported to the pad.
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The Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket blasts off on its maiden voyage carrying the EchoStar 7 direct-to-home TV broadcasting satellite into space. This is a 3 1/2 minute movie.
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Officials announce the successful launch of the inaugural Atlas 3B rocket and acquisition of signal from EchoStar 7, confirming the satellite's health after arriving in orbit.
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Lockheed Martin, NPO Energomash and International Launch Services hold a post-launch news conference to discuss the results from the maiden flight of the Atlas 3B rocket and successful deliver of EchoStar 7 into orbit.
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See full listing of video clips.
Flight data file
Vehicle: Atlas 3B (AC-204)
Payload: EchoStar 7
Launch date: Feb. 21, 2002
Launch window: 7:13-8:14 a.m. EST (1213-1314 GMT
Launch site: SLC-36B, Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla.
Satellite broadcast: Telstar 6, Trans. 22, C-band

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

Ground track - See the trajectory the rocket will follow during its flight.

Atlas 3B vehicle data - Overview of the rocket to be used in this launch.

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

EchoStar 7 - Description of this direct-to-home TV broadcasting satellite.

Atlas index - A directory of our previous Atlas launch coverage.