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The Huntsville Times December 11, 2004

Delta IV readyfor liftoff today


A lot will ride on Decatur-built Boeing rocket The first launch of the Decatur-built, Boeing Delta IV heavy-lift rocket is scheduled today at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.

The Air Force demonstration launch will carry two small research satellites that will radio Delta performance back to tracking stations on the ground. The launch has a scheduled liftoff window about 1:31 p.m.

If successful, it will mark the first time the Delta IV heavy-lift rocket, which sports three common core boosters lashed together side-by-side, has been used to carry a payload into space.

The first Delta IV launch in October 2002 was a single booster core configuration. Boeing builds the first-stage boosters and mounts the RS-68 rocket engine at its Decatur Delta rocket plant.

Boeing said the primary payload for this launch is a demonstration satellite configured to simulate a typical heavy payload. It will be carried to an orbit of about 20,000 miles, and the test results will be used to evaluate vehicle performance and payload environments for two Delta missions scheduled in 2005.

Also on board is an auxiliary payload for the Department of Defense Space Test Program. The payload, dubbed NanoSat-2, is being sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The secondary payload is a set of miniaturized satellites designed to demonstrate the viability of miniaturized component technology.

The launch "will be the culmination of the Delta IV program. It's what we have been developing for almost a decade," Frank Slazer, Boeing's Delta director for NASA development, said in a recent interview.

But the experimental cargo won't be the only thing riding on the first launch of the Delta IV. The three-booster rocket will carry Boeing's hope that its Delta program might be vaulted out of its sales and production doldrums.

The program has been slowed because of restrictions placed on it by the Air Force because former company employees stole rocket design information from a competitor while working at Boeing.

"The Boeing program has been hurt," said U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, who worked to lure the Boeing plant to Decatur. "I've been very troubled about" the Air Force censure.

Cramer had hopes the plant would bring satellite business to North Alabama "that could be used for Department of Defense missions. There's a lot of work with that, but that hasn't quite happened the way I thought it would," he said.

"This, at best, is a nuisance," Cramer said in an interview at his Washington office this week. "The program has hemorrhaged a bit, and I don't know that I see an immediate end in sight."

Boeing built the 1.5-million-square-foot, $450 million rocket plant in Decatur to produce the booster segments of the Delta IV. To reduce costs, Boeing also recently moved manufacturing of key Delta II parts to Decatur. About 600 people work at the Decatur plant.

The Decatur Delta plant produces about five boosters a year. It was built to make 40 boosters a year. The low numbers are partially due to a flat commercial launch market and because the Air Force censured Boeing in mid-2003.

Last year, the Pentagon completed an investigation that determined Boeing employees stole information from the Lockheed rocket program. This prompted the Pentagon to suspend further Delta rocket purchases from Boeing.

In July 2003, the Air Force stripped Boeing Launch Services of seven satellite launches that were awarded in 1998. The work was worth about $1 billion.

The launches were transferred to Lockheed Martin and will be performed using that company's Atlas 5 - the Delta's chief U.S. competitor.

Launch industry watchers think the censure could last for some time.

John Pike, a launch and security analyst who runs GlobalSecurity.org, said Boeing has to prove that its business practices have improved.

"The launch market moves up and down, but this ban has hurt the Delta business."

Boeing officials are confident the launch industry will pick up, and the Delta program will be out from under the Pentagon cloud. Depending on NASA decisions made over the next 18 months, Delta rockets could be used to assemble spacecraft or take supplies to the International Space Station. The company is developing plans to use the Delta to bolster the station resupply business when the space shuttle is retired.

"We feel the censure won't hurt our future business," Slazer said. "We have 17 launches on backlog now, and there are quite a number of activities we can engage in that will improve the Delta and make it attractive to NASA for" the space agency's space exploration plans.

Copyright 2004, Huntsville Times