United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today their next mammoth Delta IV Heavy rocket has arrived at its Space Launch Complex (SLC)-6 launch pad at Vandenberg AFB in southern California, ahead of its launch for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) later this year with the classified NROL-82 mission.
The move comes 2.5 months after their last Delta IV Heavy launch in December 2010 from Cape Canaveral, which deployed NRO-44 after months of delays due to weather, technical issues and even customer request. ULA is the NRO’s launch workhorse, having now launched 30 consecutive missions for the secretive government agency since 2006. NROL-82 will be ULA’s 9th flight for the NRO on the Delta IV Heavy.
The giant rocket has also deployed missions for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the final Defense Support Program (DSP) early-warning satellite, and the inaugural voyage of NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration crew capsule for the Artemis moon program.
The triple-barreled launcher’s three common booster cores (CBCs), Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) and payload fairing were all delivered to Vandenberg by ULA’s cargo ship R/S Rocketship from their factory in Decatur, Alabama, via the Panama Canal. Once all the vehicle’s components arrived at ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) overlooking SLC-6, work got underway with testing and connection of the rocket stages, attaching the port and starboard CBCs to the center core, then joining the DCSS to the interstage on the forward end (or top) of the center core.
The Launch Mate Unit (LMU) was also fastened to the three CBCs, which serves as the structural base of the rocket when it stands and contains 12 holddown bolts that explode to release the 1.6-million-pound Delta IV Heavy at liftoff.
The 170-foot-long rocket (without payload) was then rolled out from the HIF to its nearby launch pad atop a 36-wheel diesel-powered transporter on Feb. 15, where it was then raised to vertical on Feb 16, and is now secured within the pad’s Mobile Assembly Shelter, which shields the vehicle from weather and the elements during pre-flight processing and checkouts before launch.
ULA plans to conduct a practice countdown this spring, known as a Wet Dress Rehearsal, where they fuel up the rocket and go through the countdown just like the real launch day, except it does not actually fly anywhere. It helps verify that the vehicle, ground support equipment and personnel are ready for the real thing. The top secret NRO-82 payload will then be mounted atop the booster, which will then tower 23 stories above the ground.
Looking ahead at 2021, ULA has up to 10 Atlas V missions manifested, including the upcoming second Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test, the Delta IV Heavy with NROL-82, and the maiden voyage of ULA’s new Vulcan-Centaur heavylifter.