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Delta II launch to Mars a success

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

A Decatur-made Delta II hurled its Mars-bound payload into the pre-dawn darkness Saturday morning, flames billowing the exclamation on a perfect launch.

NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft has begun its 420 million mile circuitous trek to the Red Planet’s arctic plains. If all continues to go well, it will parachute onto frozen Martian soil May 25.

“The launch team did a spectacular job getting us on the way,” said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Our trajectory is still being evaluated in detail. However, we are well within expected limits for a successful journey to the Red Planet. We are all thrilled.”

The three-stage Delta II, made at Decatur’s United Launch Alliance plant, stood 126 feet high and eight feet wide. It was the most powerful configuration of the Delta II, with nine strap-on solid-fuel boosters at its first-stage base.

ULA began processing the launch vehicle in Decatur more than two years ago. In May, the first stage arrived at Cape Canaveral, Fla., from Decatur, followed by the second stage later that month.

The most problematic part of the $420 million mission is yet to come: landing.

“We certainly are excited about launching, but we still are concerned about our actual landing, the most difficult step of this mission,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.

Only five of the 15 U.S., Russian and European efforts to place probes on Mars have been successful, all of them American efforts beginning with the 1976 Viking landings.

Seeking signs of life

The Phoenix is designed to test icy soil samples for organic compounds that would indicate conditions on the planet are favorable for life.

The lander weighs 772 pounds. It has a 7-foot weather mast and, when its solar panels are deployed, is 18 feet wide.

ULA is a joint venture of the rocket divisions of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Its 630-employee Decatur plant is the main production facility for the Delta II and the Delta IV. Eventually, officials expect to build the Atlas V there, too.

Lockheed Martin built the lander. One Lockheed official called the ULA-coordinated launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., “a majestic start to the voyage.”

“The entire series of launch-day events went like clockwork. Launch and initial acquisition is the first of our critical events, and it couldn’t have gone smother,” said Ed Sedivy, spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

“I’m thrilled to be on our way.”

ULA’s next launch, scheduled for no earlier than Aug. 28, is the Defense Support Program (DSP-23) for the Air Force aboard a Delta IV Heavy.

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