ULA Delays Launch of the Last Delta IV Heavy Rocket with Classified Payload

ULA Delays Launch of the Last Delta IV Heavy Rocket with Classified Payload
ULA delays the final launch of the Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the NROL-70 mission due to a technical issue, marking the end of an era in space exploration.

In a significant update to the space launch calendar, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced a delay in the launch of its last Delta IV Heavy rocket, which was set to carry a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). This mission, dubbed NROL-70, is now on hold due to a technical hiccup, underscoring the complexities of space missions.

Key Highlights:

  • The Delta IV Heavy NROL-70 mission was scheduled for launch on Thursday, March 28, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.
  • This launch was to mark the 16th and final flight of a Delta IV Heavy rocket, concluding the 389th mission of the Delta program, a partnership between the NRO and ULA since 2006.
  • The delay was caused by a liquid pump failure in the gaseous nitrogen pipeline, vital for providing pneumatic pressure to the launch vehicle systems.
  • The NROL-70 mission is critical for national security, with the payload designed, built, and operated by the NRO to provide intelligence data to U.S. senior policymakers, the Intelligence Community, and the Department of Defense.
  • This mission underscores the NRO’s role in deploying the most advanced overhead reconnaissance systems for U.S. national security, supporting disaster relief, and humanitarian efforts globally.

The Complexities of the Delta IV Heavy Launch

The Delta IV Heavy, known for its capability to perform high-priority national security and NASA missions, is the only operational rocket today that meets the stringent requirements for the NROL-70 mission. With a history dating back to its first flight in December 2004, the Delta IV Heavy has been a workhorse for delivering critical payloads to orbit.

Preparations for the NROL-70 launch began in May 2023, with the rocket components transported from the ULA factory in Decatur, Alabama, to Cape Canaveral. The launch vehicle’s unique configuration includes three common booster cores (CBCs), a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS), and a metallic trisector payload fairing (PLF), demonstrating the rocket’s intricate engineering and design.

The Technical Setback

The delay highlights the intricate and sometimes unpredictable nature of spaceflight. The issue with the gaseous nitrogen pipeline’s liquid pump failure necessitated more time to ensure the system’s reliability before proceeding with the launch. ULA’s commitment to safety and mission success is evident as the team works to troubleshoot the problem and schedule a new launch date.

As ULA prepares for the next launch attempt, the space community watches closely, understanding the importance of the NROL-70 mission to national security and space exploration. This mission not only represents the end of an era for the Delta IV Heavy rocket but also a pivotal moment for ULA as it transitions to future missions with the new Vulcan rocket, aimed at offering even higher performance for heavy-class missions.