Chair Force Engineer

Monday, January 30, 2006

Delta Death--Delayed?

Some reports on the Internet speculate that Boeing will kill off the Delta IV after the "United Launch Allaince" merger is finalized. Supposedly Boeing will base its decision on military needs. My educated guess is that the death of Delta IV will not be coming for a while.

My biggest strike against Delta IV is that it has launched fewer times than its rival, the Atlas V; and when it does launch, those missions face repeated delays due to faults of the launcher. However, Delta IV has one advantage over Atlas V: a heavy-lift version that can put 25 tons in low earth orbit.

Presumably, United Launch Alliance could build an Atlas V Heavy to make up for the loss of Delta IV. Yet this is easier said than done. The Delta IV Heavy demo mission in December 2004 showed us how difficult this can be--cavitation in the propellant lines led to premature shutdown of the first stage engines, and the demo payload was left in a highly-eliptical orbit. Since then, Boeing has investigated the anomaly and has a fix that should hopefully work in the future.

At this point, it isn't wise to reinvent the wheel by coming up with an Atlas V Heavy (as long as Delta IV Heavy works on future missions.) United Launch Alliance may decide to fly the Atlas V for most missions and to whip out the Delta IV Heavy only for the missions where a heavy lifter is needed. In that sense, it will become a "pad queen" just like the Titan IV it's replacing--a rare, maintenance-intensive rocket that flies a handful of high-profile missions in its lifetime.

[EDIT 1/31/2006] Many of the other bloggers who are linking to this article are of the belief that the EELV program is a fiasco. I wanted to make it clear that I do not share this opinion.

While competition was planned from the outset, the collapse of the commercial satellite market has made real competition a fantasy. The value of two separate launch systems comes from redundancy. If a problem grounds one fleet of rockets, there will still be a second rocket fleet to launch essential payloads. As long as that redundancy is available, EELV will not be a failure, IMHO.