NASA Breathes New Life Into Reliable United Launch Alliance Workhorse

In this image a Delta II rocket thunders off of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-17 in Florida. At the time this was thought to be the final flight of a Delta II. With this latest announcement however the Delta II will see at least three more missions – all from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / ARES Institute

NASA has decided United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rocket still has a few missions left in it. The venerable launch system that has powered some of the most famous planetary missions ever launched into orbit – will carry three more.

The United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket is a highly successful launch vehicle with only two failures out of the 151 missions launched to date. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / ARES Institute

All of these missions will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 2 (SLC-2) located in California. The missions have already been selected:

–  Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) – scheduled to launch in July 2014.

–  Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) scheduled to launch in October 2014.

–  Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS) scheduled to launch in 2016.

OCO-2 is the follow-up to the failed OCO-1 mission which was launched atop one of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Taurus-XL 3110 in 2009. The spacecraft was doomed when the fairing never separated. OCO-1 plummeted into the Indian Ocean (NASA’s Glory mission would meet an identical fate two years later atop the same family of rocket and with a similar malfunction). 

“ULA is honored NASA has selected the Delta II launch vehicle to launch these critical science payloads,” said Michael Gass, ULA president and CEO. “While we count success one mission at a time, we have been able to count on the Delta II’s success 97 times in a row over the last decade. This is a tribute to our dedicated ULA employees, our supplier teammates and our NASA Launch Services Program customer who ensure mission success is the focus of each and every launch.”

Many of NASA’s recent Martian successes began under the fiery plume of this launch vehicle. Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity and the Mars Phoenix Lander were all launched atop the Delta II.

Mars, however, is not the only place that these rockets have sent NASA missions. The Moon (the twin Grail satellites) asteroids (the ion-powered Dawn spacecraft) and even comets (NASA’s Genesis mission) were also launched using the Delta II rocket. 

“The Delta II vehicle continues to offer excellent reliability and best value to our customers,” said Gass. “We look forward to working with NASA for these future Delta II launch campaigns.”

The Delta II has launched some of NASA’s most famous planetary missions. The Mars Exploration Rovers, Pathfinder, Genesis and Dawn spacecraft were all launched via the venerable Delta II. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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