Concerns Arise as ULA Delta IV Rocket Launch Postponed Again

The spy satellite mission, NROL-44, has been plagued by a series of technical issues.
Chris Young

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has delayed the launch of its Delta IV rocket once again on Tuesday, raising concerns over the infrastructure behind the mission.

ULA's launch of a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, valued at more than $1 billion, was first scheduled to launch in June. Since then, technical issues have delayed the launch on more than one occasion.


A rocky road for NROL-44

Though weather conditions at the launch site were not optimal, the mission was delayed on Tuesday due to a technical problem with the launch pad.

As Ars Technica reports, this is now the third time that ULA has had issues with its ground systems equipment at Space Launch Complex-37 in Cape Canaveral, Florida for this same mission, which is called NROL-44.

Originally scheduled for June, the mission was delayed to August without any official reason given. However, on August 29, the launch was aborted only three seconds before launch due to the failure of the regulator for the center core engine. 

After that issue was corrected, the company prepared to launch the NROL-44 mission once again on September 26. A day before this date, the launch was delayed once again due to a problem with the launch pad's swing arm retraction system, which is responsible for removing fuel lines and other connections before liftoff.

The latest delay

After a few days fixing the problem with the launch pad's swing arm retraction system, the latest launch date was set — Tuesday, September 29. Once again, this has been delayed.

The latest update from ULA's website says:

"The launch of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy carrying the NROL-44 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office was scrubbed today when the terminal countdown sequencer rack (TCSR) identified an unexpected condition prior to the engine start sequence."

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"The TCSR, which controls the final 10 seconds of the countdown, performed as intended and safely initiated a hold at T-minus seven seconds. The team is currently reviewing all data and will determine the path forward."

Why all the technical issues?

As Ars Technica points out, the infrastructure at Launch Complex-37 is old as it was originally built for NASA's Saturn I rocket in 1959. The first ULA Delta IV rocket was launched from the pad in November 2002.

The company is also in the process of retiring the Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has just four more launches scheduled after this mission, to be replaced by the more cost-effective Vulcan-Centaur booster.

There are suggestions that ULA is investing more heavily in its future plans, which may account for some of the recent technical issues hampering the latest Delta IV Heavy launch.

It is worth pointing out that ULA has a commendable safety record, and that they will only launch when everything is safe and operational.

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