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Atlas 5 rocket @ 10 years:
A decade since debut launch


Posted: August 21, 2012

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CAPE CANAVERAL - Rocketing away on its maiden mission, an inaugural ascent loaded with a paying passenger, the Atlas 5 debuted 10 years ago Tuesday in a flight packed with compelling suspense.

It was August 21, 2002, the Lockheed Martin-made booster was fueled up on its Cape Canaveral launch pad at Complex 41, counting down to blastoff at 6:05 p.m. EDT (2205 GMT).

An immeasurable number of rehearsals, simulations and tests had exercised the team and hardware for months to ready the brand new rocket for its first trip to orbit. All of that effort would result in Atlas 5 launching precisely on-time at the opening moment of the window on the first attempt, a remarkable footnote for history that surprised even mission managers at the helm.

"3, 2, 1, and the RD-180 engine roars to life, and liftoff of the maiden flight of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket with the Hot Bird 6 spacecraft on board for Eutelsat of Paris, France," launch commentator Don Spencer belted from the broadcast booth at the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center.

With the memories of two years earlier still fresh, of teams enduring multiple postponements trying to launch the first Atlas 3 rocket, even scrubbing for an ill-timed fishing tournament, the Atlas 5 thundered into a picturesque Florida sky without delay.

"There had been an unofficial pool among Atlas people on when the rocket would launch. With the debut launch of the Atlas 3 in mind, I was not optimistic for an on-time launch. Obviously, my bet turned out to be wildly off. I was nonchalantly chatting with my PR colleagues when it became obvious the terminal count was underway!" recalls Julie Andrews, the respected Lockheed Martin public affairs specialist for the launch.

The first Atlas 5 blasts off. Credit: Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin
The RD-180 main engine, consuming a highly refined kerosene and supercold liquid oxygen, was generating about 860,000 pounds of thrust, not much more than the rocket's 737,500-pound liftoff weight, making the blastoff resemble a slow-motion display of fire and power as the booster lumbered off the pad.

"I clearly remember telling everyone that it was going to be a very slow liftoff and not to panic if it appeared that it was never going to leave the pad," Adrian Laffitte, the Lockheed Martin launch director for the mission, jokingly recalls.

The term "majestic" would get pinned on the Atlas 5's trademark liftoff speed, taking about 13 seconds to clear the lightning towers flanking the pad.

"To actually launch at the beginning of the window was icing on all the years we spent to get there," Laffitte added.

Besides developing the new rocket, the Atlas team also constructed a launch site complete with a giant assembly building and a sophisticated control center.

Trailing the flickering flame from the RD-180 main engine, the 19-story-tall rocket headed up and east toward a supersynchronous transfer orbit, the destination to drop off communications satellites. Nestled in the nose cone for the mission was Hot Bird 6, a European-made spacecraft to provide direct-to-home TV broadcasting.

"All propulsion parameters continue to look good. One minute into the flight. Everything looks good," telemetry commentator Rob Gagnon reported as the rocket picked up speed and altitude.

Atlas 5 appeared rock-steady as it flew dead-center on the projected track, beaming back dazzling views of Earth from video cameras mounted on the vehicle.

Nearly four minutes into the launch, the main engine began easing back on the throttle before shutting down so the spent first stage could fire its retro-thrusters to separate away from the Centaur upper stage.

"We have ignition and full thrust. The engine is up and running normally, all parameters on the Centaur engine look good," Gagnon reported as the mission moved into the second stage of flight, the cryogenic Centaur lighting its RL10 engine that would push the rocket into a preliminary parking orbit before firing a second time to heave Hot Bird 6 to the desired perch for deployment.

"The Atlas team has done it! The Atlas 5 has debuted successfully!" Spencer called from launch control as the satellite gracefully separated from the launcher at 6:36 p.m.

A spectacular panorama of first Atlas 5. Credit: Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin

It took just under 32 minutes to achieve success for the Atlas 5 that day, culminating with Laffitte's infamous words to his launch team: "Let's party!"

"Space is hard, but that makes the successes all the sweeter!" said Andrews.

See our post-launch story from Aug. 22, 2002.

Ten years later, the Hot Bird 6 satellite payload remains in service for operator Eutelsat in a flock of craft that delivers 1,100 television channels to more than 120 million homes across Europe and the surrounding region.

In the summer of 2002, there was palpable pressure to get Atlas 5 first the marketplace, beating the rival Boeing Delta 4 that would fly successfully on its maiden launch that November.

Both rockets were created out of the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, an effort to spur development of next-generation families of modular boosters to replace the legacy rockets for carrying military payloads of all shapes and sizes to orbit.

The competing rockets would vie for a share of the commercial satellite deployment business, too, but within a few years those aspirations slipped away as the Pentagon booked most of the available launch slots on the manifest, with a handful of NASA science missions in the mix, and Air Force brass taking greater control of the rocket fleets.

International Launch Services, which had marketed the early Atlas 5 flights, parted company with Lockheed Martin and turned its entire focus on selling Russian Proton rockets.

And soon Atlas 5 and Delta 4 did what was unfathomable in 2002, they merged under the same operating umbrella, known as United Launch Alliance, to keep both vehicle lines viable for the military's "assured access to space" mantra.

They have combined for 51 successful launches over the past decade, with No. 52 coming up Friday when an Atlas 5 carries NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes into orbit from Cape Canaveral.

It will be the Atlas 5 rocket's 32nd mission, following 10 flights dedicated to the Defense Department, 9 commercial launches with communications spacecraft, six with spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office and six for NASA.

The first Atlas 5 blasts off. Credit: Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin
The debut of Atlas 5 followed the successful maiden launches of the Atlas 3A rocket with the new RD-180 engine in May 2000 and the Atlas 3B with the stretched Centaur in February 2002, all critical elements that rolled directly into the EELV program for the rocket family's evolution to larger, more powerful boosters.

"I gave a speech the week before launch and told the team no one has won three Super Bowls in row. This is our time to shine. This has got to be our shining achievement," recalls John Karas, who served as Lockheed Martin's vice president for Atlas 5 development.

The Atlas team rallied, scored the victory and the rest is history.

"I am proud that ten years ago we started the legacy of the Atlas 5 and how it has continued to be a success," Laffitte said Monday.

About the author

Justin Ray has been editor of Spaceflight Now since its inception in November 1999. The online website, based at Cape Canaveral, has documented U.S. and international space news with a specialty of live launch coverage.

Prior to that, Justin worked for two years as an aerospace reporter at the Florida Today newspaper and its pioneering Space Online website. He began his career as an intern at Patrick Air Force Base's public affairs office in 1996 and wrote for the Missileer base newspaper.

The Ohio native has covered more than 115 Delta rocket launches, 85 Atlas flights, 65 space shuttle missions and construction of the International Space Station, plus scientific spacecraft such as the Mars rovers and Cassini.

He attended college at the University of Central Florida and now resides in Viera, Florida.