Infamous satellite returns to pad for third launch try

Posted: August 13, 2003

A hard-luck military weather satellite has taken its place on the launch pad for the third time in nearly three years. This time, officials and workers alike hope the mission will finally blast skyward next month.

Encapsulated in a transport canister, the DMSP F16 satellite arrives at the launch pad Wednesday morning. Photo: U.S. Air Force
The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) F16 spacecraft was a half-minute from liftoff in January 2001 aboard a Titan 2 rocket. But a countless series of problems have kept the satellite grounded instead of orbiting high above Earth to aid the U.S. military in forecasting global weather conditions for the warfighter.

Now, all appears set for launch September 14 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The day's 10-minute launch window opens at 9:17 a.m. PDT (12:17 p.m. EDT; 1617 GMT).

Before dawn Wednesday, the DMSP F16 spacecraft was driven 10 miles from its processing facility to the Space Launch Complex 4-West pad for mating to the Titan 2 rocket. Technicians attached a crane to the satellite's shipping container and lifted it into the tower. The craft was then positioned for attachment to the launch vehicle.

"It went flawlessly. From the time we rolled until the time we got to the pad everything clicked right along, right in place," Tech. Sgt. Chuck Spice, spacecraft operations controller at Vandenberg, said in a media event Wednesday. "This was a big deal. Everybody knows it is a big deal."

The satellite nears the launch pad clean room Wednesday morning. Photo: U.S. Air Force
It was a deja vu moment for the Lockheed Martin-built satellite, which made the voyage to the launch pad in December 2000 and again in late 2001. On the two previous joinings of the spacecraft and rocket, technical troubles with the satellite forced it back to the hangar for repairs.

Everyone hopes the third time will be the charm.

"Its time has come," said Spice.

Plans call for the satellite to be fueled on August 25. An integrated systems test between the rocket and payload is slated for early September. Fueling the Titan's two stages with storable propellant occurs about a week before launch.

"There is a lot of work yet to be done. There are a lot of major milestones that we have to hurdle over. We still haven't reached to the point we made it to last time. Once we get fuel onboard, I will start feeling better then," Spice said.

In January 2002 as engineers were preparing to fuel the spacecraft, they uncovered a major problem with the satellite's propulsion system. That forced the craft back to its hangar so the propulsion system could be replaced.

The satellite is lowered into place for attachment with the Titan 2 rocket. Photo: U.S. Air Force
The government and industry team says it is working hard to make sure this launch, after such a long wait to fly, has a successful outcome.

"We think we have covered all the bases," said Scott Ballew, senior launch director for Lockheed Martin Astronautics.

"If it takes us 60 days or 90 days for a normal cycle, or three years for this mission, in the end, getting it right is what it's all about."

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