News from the Tennessee Valley Business
SUNDAY, JUNE 3, 2007

Scientists worry about loss of Delta II rockets

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

The Delta II has a phenomenal record. With 123 launches, its reliability record comes in at 98.3 percent. It has also been the brightest spot for Boeing and then United Launch Alliance in an otherwise anemic commercial market.

Its success, and the unique role it plays in the domestic satellite-launch market, has scientists worried. A May 2 meeting of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, part of the House Committee on Science and Technology, was almost funereal.

Cost of launches

Garth Illingsworth, an astronomer at the University of California in Santa Cruz, worried about “the cost of launch vehicles with the demise of the Delta II launchers. This has the potential to be a serious issue for the small-to-medium scale (scientific) missions.”

Alan Stern, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, called the Delta II “the reliable workhorse for launching science missions.” Stern lamented that “the supplier of that launcher is getting out of the Delta II business in favor of larger and more expensive Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.”

Several experts, citing the end of the Delta II program, called for greater U.S. investment in research to come up with ways to reduce the cost of launch vehicles.

Many of those speaking to the subcommittee saw the demise of the Delta II as a disturbing omen.

“There are some disturbing recent signs in the access-to-space arena,” said Daniel Baker, director of astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “One of the longest serving launch vehicles for NASA missions, the Boeing Delta II vehicle, is being eliminated as an option for future science programs.

“Losing the ‘sweet spot’ around which so many NASA launches were planned will, I fear, propagate in highly detrimental ways throughout the space science enterprise.”

Many experts expressed concerns that EELVs are Cadillacs when, for many science missions, a Volkswagen would do.

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