Maiden Atlas 5 rocket to undergo crucial testing

Posted: January 29, 2002

The first Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket, set for liftoff May 9, will be moved from its checkout facility to the new assembly building at Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 next week to be hoisted atop a mobile launching platform and readied for a series of demonstration tests over the next couple of months.

The Common Core Booster -- the first stage of the Atlas 5 rocket -- will be towed from the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center to the 292-foot tall Vertical Integration Facility on Monday.

The Common Core Booster first stage for the maiden Atlas 5 sits in the ASOC. Photo: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now

The Atlas booster and its Centaur upper stage have been in and out of the Operations Center since arriving in Florida last summer. Dubbed the ASOC, the multi-purpose building serves as the launch control center, rocket testing and storage facility and customer viewing site.

The rocket stages were used in testing of the ASOC, then moved to the Vertical Integration Facility, or VIF, and successfully stacked together last October for a demonstration of ground handling equipment.

They were returned to the ASOC at year's end to receive their flight-worthy electronics boxes and other gear in preparation for the inaugural launch.

Now ready to fly, the booster stage will be transferred to the VIF and erected on Monday, followed two days later by the Centaur, said Mike Jacobs, Lockheed Martin's manager for Atlas 5 launch operations.

  Atlas 5
The Common Core Booster is hoisted into the VIF last October. The "clean pad" of Complex 41, with the four lightning towers, is seen in the background. Photo: Lockheed Martin
The move will mark the start of flight processing for the inaugural Atlas 5 mission, which will launch the Hot Bird 6 TV and data broadcasting satellite for Eutelsat.

The rocket will remain assembled for the rest of its time on Earth, riding tall on the mobile platform that will be wheeled the 1,800 feet from the assembly building to the launch pad three separate times for countdown simulations in February, March and April. It will make the trek a final time some 12 hours before blastoff on May 9.

Lockheed Martin has designed the next-generation Atlas 5 launcher to use a "clean pad" concept whereby the rocket is readied for launch in the VIF and spends only minimal time on the launch pad. The short stay on the pad means a service tower isn't needed.

After stacking the rocket stages next week, the next major milestone will come on February 11 when the "launch verification readiness test" is performed. With engineers controlling from the ASOC, the Atlas 5 will be powered up, run through flight control and guidance system testing and integrated fluid testing, Jacobs said.

Then, a dummy satellite cargo, already encapsulated in the payload fairing, will be brought to the VIF, hoisted into the building and attached to the rocket.

With the 191-foot tall rocket fully assembled, it will make the first trip to the pad on February 25, kicking off a three-day countdown demonstration.

  Atlas 5
This still image taken from animation shows what the first Atlas 5 rocket will look like on the launch pad. Photo: Lockheed Martin
Known as a Wet Dress Rehearsal, or WDR, three such events are planned as pathfinder exercises to practice transporting the rocket to the pad, loading propellants and conducting mock countdowns.

"For risk reduction, it is a three-step process," Jacobs said of the three rehearsals.

After rolling out on February 25, the Common Core Booster first stage will be loaded with its supply of RP-1 fuel, a highly refined kerosene.

Day Two of the rehearsal will feature the launch countdown demonstration, with all of the command and control centers staffed. Super-cold liquid oxygen will be pumped into the Atlas and Centaur stages and liquid hydrogen into the Centaur, providing the checkout of the new automatic systems used for propellant loading on Atlas 5. Other key tests will include those of the rocket's guidance, navigation, flight control and hydraulics systems.

The countdown clock will tick down to T-minus 4 minutes before being stopped. The rocket then will be drained of its propellants and safed, Jacobs said.

On Day 3 engineers will review all the data collected during the mock countdown and determine if any parts of the rehearsal need to be re-performed. If officials are satisfied with the outcome, the rocket will be rolled back to the VIF that day, February 27, to complete Wet Dress Rehearsal No. 1.

"The first one basically verifies we can tank it, the team is operating well and all systems are functioning," Jacobs explained.

  Atlas 5
The first Atlas 5 -- with the Common Core Booster and Centaur upper stage -- is assembled atop the mobile launcher platform in the VIF last fall for testing of ground handling equipment. It was taken down and returned to the ASOC to be fitted with its flight electronics. Photo: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Once back in the VIF the pretend satellite payload will be removed from the rocket since it won't be included during the subsequent two rehearsals.

The second WDR event is slated for March 26 and will feature the rocket rolling out and going through the countdown on the same day. This rehearsal will see the countdown continue to T-minus 0 seconds for a liftoff simulation. The launch team will be put to the test throughout the countdown by practicing aborts and dealing with simulated problems.

The third and final rehearsal is planned for April 10. Jacobs said this WDR will be more "flight-like" and mirror a standard countdown. The activities surrounding the rocket's roll to the pad and fueling will be almost identical to the launch day game plan.

The Hot Bird 6 spacecraft, enclosed within the rocket's nose cone at a nearby satellite processing facility, will be brought to Complex 41 in late April and attached to the Atlas 5 in the VIF.

"Once we get a successful WDR No. 3, we will bring the spacecraft out," said Jacobs.

This first Atlas 5 rocket, tail-number AV-001, will fly in what Lockheed Martin calls the 401-vehicle configuration. That means it will have a four-meter payload fairing nose cone, no strap-on solid rocket boosters and one engine on the Centaur upper stage. As with all Atlas 5 configurations, the Common Core Booster will be powered by the Russian RD-180 engine.

A second Atlas 5 launch is scheduled in 2002. The Lockheed Martin-built Nimiq 2 direct-to-home TV broadcasting satellite will be carried into space in the later part of the year for Telesat Canada.

Jacobs says everything is going well for the start of the Atlas 5 era. "The team has really come is definitely a one-team atmosphere now."

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

Preview a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 400-series rocket launch with this animation package of a 401 configuration vehicle lofting a communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.
  QuickTime or RealVideo

This animation shows the launch of a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 500-series rocket, which features a larger payload fairing and five solid rocket boosters.
  QuickTime or RealVideo

The first Atlas 5 rocket is unveiled at Lockheed Martin's Denver facility in this ceremony with emotion-stirring music.
  QuickTime or RealVideo

See full listing of video clips.
Atlas 5 Info
The Atlas family - Comparison of the Atlas 2, 3 and 5 rockets.

Atlas 5 400 description - A look at the pieces that make up the 400-series rocket.

Atlas 5 500 description - A look at the pieces that make up the 500-series rocket.

Typical Atlas 5 400-series launch - Sample look at launch sequence for Atlas 5 401 vehicle configuration.

Typical Atlas 5 500-series launch - Sample look at launch sequence for Atlas 5 551 vehicle configuration.

Space Launch Complex 41 - Overview of the Atlas 5 launch site.