NROL-44 Aims for Midnight Tonight, As Busy East Coast Manifest Realigns

Mother Nature was not on the side of either SpaceX or ULA on Monday. And as always, her rules must be complied with. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Hopes of launching the beleaguered Delta IV Heavy just after midnight Tuesday ultimately proved fruitless, as lightning in the launch area once again kept the United Launch Alliance (ULA) behemoth shackled to the ground. Having sat out on Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., for over ten months, it certainly appeared that the triple-barreled rocket is snakebitten by cruel fortune as it aims—hopefully soon—to get the highly secretive NROL-44 payload airborne for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Appalling weather had already caused SpaceX to scrub the launch of delayed Starlink mission, earlier in the day.

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The Delta IV Heavy is pictured inside the cavernous Mobile Service Tower (MST). Photo Credit: ULA

Following last night’s scrub, another attempt is scheduled for 11:58 p.m. EDT Tuesday, offering Florida skywatchers another opportunity to see the first launch of a ULA “Majestic Delta” in more than a year.

It seemed plain from Monday morning that Mother Nature would not play ball for either SpaceX’s delayed Starlink mission or ULA’s hope to get NROL-44 off the ground. Under oppressively cloudy skies, a Falcon 9 booster was fully fueled and ready to go on historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), as SpaceX hoped for a break in the murk and a chance to thread the needle with a liftoff at 10:22 a.m. EDT.

With weather hovering at just 40-percent-favorable, Monday did not turn out to be SpaceX’s day. Photo Credit: SpaceX

It did not come. With the Range classified as “Red” (“No-Go”) on weather, the attempt was eventually aborted at T-31 seconds, as cameras aboard the heaving deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, afforded a similarly pessimistic picture in terms of the wisdom of attempting a booster recovery. No backup date has been revealed, as SpaceX reported that it “will announce a new target launch date once confirmed”.

In hopes of getting NROL-44 off the ground at 12:02 a.m. EDT Tuesday, ULA engineers powered up the Delta IV Heavy rocket Monday afternoon. Meteorologist Jessica Williams from the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base identified conditions as acceptable for rollback of the 300-foot-tall (100-meter) Mobile Service Tower (MST) from the vehicle, although as rain and intracloud lightning was expected, the outlook did not look promising. Nevertheless, ULA Launch Director Lou Mangieri issued his approval for the jacking and rollback of the MST.

With thick cloud cover and lightning risks, Mother Nature was definitively “No-Go” for both the SpaceX Falcon 9 and ULA Delta IV Heavy launches on Monday. Image Credit: ULA

But the pad crew had barely begun to elevate the MST on its 40 massive hydraulic jacks, when the first indications of lightning materialized. Shortly after 9:30 p.m. EDT, a Phase 1 Lightning Watch was issued, indicating that lightning was expected in the area within the following 30 minutes or so. “Although lightning has yet to strike,” notes the 45th Weather Squadron in its lightning advisory, “conditions are developing for dangerous lightning soon.” A few minutes later, a Phase 2 Lightning Warning was called, pointing to the imminent arrival of lightning. “At that point, you are in danger and should immediately take protective actions,” added the 45th.

As the pad crew cleared the area, and with the MST still in place, conditions gradually worsened. Nevertheless, the countdown continued. “We are awaiting improvement in the weather,” reported ULA, “in order for the team to resume its work at the pad for a launch attempt tonight.”  

The triple-barreled Delta IV has been thwarted from launching its highly secretive NROL-44 mission for over a month. Photo Credit: ULA

But it was not to be. “Lightning strike near the pad,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno at 11:18 p.m. EDT. “Looking at the launch window.”

Fourteen minutes later came the official announcement of a scrub. The next attempt will occur at 11:58 p.m. EDT Tuesday. According to forecasts, the weather is expected to improve to 80-percent-favorable, with a chance of a potential violation of the Thick Cloud Rule.

Last night’s delay is just the latest for the Delta IV Heavy, which has to date sat on its launch complex for more than ten months—319 days, to be exact—and has succumbed to multiple postponement and frustrating technical problems. After arrival on the pad last 15 November, it underwent a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) in the second week of January, where it was fueled with a full load of 440,000 pounds (200,000 kg) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen and put through almost a full countdown simulation. This is a customary process for NRO missions conducted by ULA.

Image Credit: ULA

Hopes to launch in June were postponed until 26 August, at the NRO’s request, with another 24-hour move to the 27th. Then a ground pneumatics control system issue conspired to create another two-day delay and a visually dramatic “Hot Fire Abort” on the 29th—autonomously commanded by the Terminal Countdown Sequencer Rack (TCSR) at T-3 seconds, after the Delta’s starboard-side Common Booster Core (CBC) had already ignited—produced a lengthier slip as three pad-side actuators were removed, refurbished, tested and reinstalled.

Efforts to get the snakebitten mission off the ground as early as 26 September also came to nothing, when a hydraulic problem arose with SLC-37B’s swing-arm system and forced another three-day delay. Last night’s weather scrub piles yet more frustration onto an already frustrating launch campaign.

Not only SpaceX and ULA, but also Northrop Grumman Corp. have fallen foul to Mother Nature’s rules this week. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

Assuming NROL-44 launches at 11:58 p.m. EDT tonight, a packed manifest of missions from the East Coast shows no sign of slowing down. SpaceX announced late Monday that it would move another Falcon 9 mission on neighboring SLC-40 at the Cape—previously scheduled to fly on the 29th—back to the 30th, to await better weather, although at this article was being prepared the company has yet to issue a definitive T-0 time. According to the 45th Weather Squadron, Wednesday promises a 90-percent probability of acceptable weather, tempered only by a risk of infringing the Thick Cloud Layer Rule.

At the back of both of these flights is the delayed Starlink flight, which may yet occur before week’s end. And Northrop Grumman Corp. is set to launch its Antares 230+ booster with the NG-14 Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday evening. Launch is targeted for 9:38 p.m. EDT from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. This mission, too, has been subject to a 48-hour postponement, due to poor weather conditions, and adds another layer of complexity to a week in which Mother Nature has demonstrably proven who is in charge.

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