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Retirement seems likely for rocket made in Decatur; ULA hopeful

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

A cosmic workhorse with a central place in the Decatur economy may be nearing retirement, and the U.S. scientific community is concerned.

The Delta II, a medium-lift, satellite-launch rocket that has dominated the race to earth’s orbit since Boeing Co. introduced it in 1989, may be phased out in two years.

But don’t write the epitaph yet, warns United Launch Alliance, which builds the rockets at its Decatur facility.

Julie Andrews, Denver-based communications director for ULA, said the Delta II’s fate is in limbo.

“Right now there has been no decision made to end the product line,” Andrews said. “We’re providing a lot of data to our NASA customer to examine a number of options, but there is no final decision from NASA to stop using Delta II.”

As of now, Andrews said, Boeing Launch Services is still marketing the Delta II to commercial customers.

Decatur employment

Even if discontinued, she said, ULA does not expect it to impact employment levels in Decatur.

“So they’re going to be humming in the next couple years,” Andrews said. “The Delta II really does not have a significant impact on Decatur.”

Previously located in Pueblo, Colo., the Delta II production facility moved to Decatur in July 2004.

The Air Force coordinates all U.S. military launches and will discontinue its use of the Delta II in 2009. That means production could end even sooner.

Whether the Delta II program survives the loss of its Air Force customer depends largely on its other main customer.

NASA is evaluating whether it will continue using the Delta II or, like the Air Force, switch to the more expensive Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.

The Delta II has been NASA’s mainstay. Between 1996 and 2004, Delta II launched seven missions to Mars for NASA, including the Mars Pathfinder that landed on Mars in July 1997, and the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” that landed on Mars in January 2004.

The seeds of Delta II’s demise also put Decatur on the map as the world’s pre-eminent manufacturer of satellite-launch vehicles.

The Air Force decided in 1994 that it needed a robust and uniform rocket program. That decision led to the development of the EELV.

The only two EELVs are the Delta IV and the Atlas V. Since the December 2006 merger of the rocket divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., ULA is the exclusive producer of both launch vehicles. Production of the Delta IV is already centered in Decatur. Plans are in place to shift Atlas V production to Decatur as well.

The 1.5-million-square-foot ULA facility is on 410 acres in Decatur’s Mallard-Fox Creek Industrial Park. Construction began in November 1997. Launch vehicles are completed in the facility, then moved to a dock on the Tennessee River.

NASA’s dilemma is cost. While the heavy-lift Delta IV is more expensive than the medium-lift Delta II, Delta II prices will go up as the number of launches goes down.

That’s the case, said Andrews, because of fixed costs associated with the program.

ULA won’t reveal cost information, but industry sources estimate the Delta II’s price tag at $70 million at current production levels.

The Delta IV comes in at about $140 million, a price likely to come down as its launch rate benefits from military business that previously went to the Delta II.

Among the fixed costs NASA must consider are the three launch pads maintained exclusively for the Delta II.

Two are in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; one is in Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.

Delta II launches

United Launch Alliance has two Delta II launches this month. June 7, a Delta II will place a COSMO-SkyMed satellite in orbit over the Mediterranean. The satellite will provide mapping and reconnaissance data for ULA’s customer, the Italian government.

On June 30, ULA will launch the asteroid-bound Dawn spacecraft for NASA. Dawn’s nine-year mission will take it to two of the solar system’s largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta.

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