Last flight of Delta rocket since the Cold War broke down moments before launch

The last flight of the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle from United Launch Alliance was canceled on March 28, when less than four minutes remained on the countdown clock to launch. The grand finale, which was supposed to retire the legendary Delta rocket family, which dated back to the Cold War, turned out to be problematic.

Delta IV Heavy rocket on the launch pad of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA

“The launch of Delta IV Heavy rocket was scrubbed due to an “issue with the gaseous nitrogen pipeline which provides pneumatic pressure to the launch vehicle systems,” ULA reported. A team of engineers has already begun operations to test the launch vehicle.

United Launch Alliance planned to repeat the launch of the Delta IV Heavy the next day. But on March 29, the launch did not take place again. According to the company’s press service, they need more time to check all systems before launch and make the last flight safe. 

Delta IV Heavy. Photo: NASA

If the next launch goes according to plan, it will be the 16th and last flight of the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle, as well as for the Delta family of rockets that have been flying for more than six decades. The launch is to bring the NROL-70 mission for the National Intelligence Agency (NRO), which provides for the launch of a reconnaissance satellite into geostationary orbit.

Dangerous launch of a rocket with a 60-year history

The first flight of the Delta family rocket took place on May 13, 1960, from the SLC-17 launch complex at Cape Canaveral. This flight marked the beginning of a program developed by the U.S. government to create a set of disposable launch vehicles that were used to deliver payloads ranging from artificial satellites to deep space missions. Delta rockets launched three NASA rovers (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity) to explore the surface of the Red Planet. During the existence of the program, Delta family rockets have carried out 388 launches over 60 years, which have constantly evolved to become more powerful and reliable. The last iteration of Delta IV heavy launch vehicles appeared in 2002 and has completed 15 launches during its existence. 

The Delta IV Heavy two-stage rocket with a height of 72 m consists of three upper stages, each of which is equipped with an RS-68A engine. The start of the launch vehicle looks pretty creepy, because a few seconds before the engines are ignited, it is engulfed in flames, which literally burns the orange paint to a charcoal color. This process is deliberate and controlled, because the flame burns excess hydrogen at this moment.

The Delta IV and Atlas V rockets will be replaced by a new one, the ULA Vulcan Centaur. This two-stage heavy launch vehicle, which puts into orbit, debuted in January 2024, sending the private Peregrine lander to the Moon.

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