After 16 delays in the last 13 months, the Air Force on Wednesday launched a $37.3-million weather satellite, the second successful launch this month by the nation's space program after a string of failures.
A crowd of more than 100 Air Force and NASA officials and contractors cheered as the 94-foot Atlas E rocket, which carried the NOOA-G satellite, blasted off at 8:52 a.m. The all-white rocket left a trail of bright orange flames before disappearing into the heavy cloud cover.
"This was a very important launch for our morale," National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Jim Kukowski said moments after the launch. "We've been down for about eight months, with one failure after another, so we really needed to show that we could put some successful launches together."
In Polar Orbit
NASA is responsible for placing the 3,773-pound National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellite into polar orbit. From its vantage point 518 miles above the Earth, the satellite, built by RCA, will gather meteorological data and relay that information to Earth stations over the next three years.
The satellite will be utilized to send back images of cloud formations, assess temperature and moisture in the atmosphere and measure radiation. It also will pinpoint the location of distress calls from ships and aircraft.
The nation's space program has had a series of well-publicized failures, begining with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the death of its seven crew members Jan. 28. Then, on April 18 at Vandenberg, a Titan missile exploded on launching, and a NASA Delta rocket spun out of control after its launch May 3 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was intentionally blown up.
Series of Delays
The NOAA-G weather satellite was scheduled to have been the first NASA launch since the Delta went down, and it had drawn much attention. But as a result of the delays, the launch of another Delta rocket Sept. 5 at Kennedy represented the first successful NASA flight in eight months.
Still, as a result of all the problems with the space agency, Wednesday's launch drew extraordinary attention. In the past, a weather satellite launch would have drawn about five local reporters, Kukowski said. But about 100 reporters and photographers showed up, he said, and the event attracted much advance publicity.
"I can't recall when we've ever had a crowd like this here," NASA spokesman Jim Elliot said. "No question about it, a lot of people are here because they anticipate a problem."
The satellite was originally scheduled to have been launched in August, 1985. But the launch was delayed three times because of scheduling conflicts with the Air Force, which also launches from Vandenberg, Elliot said, and 13 times as a result of technological problems. Of those 13 delays, six were caused by difficulties with the weather satellite--for which NASA is responsible--and seven were a result of problems with the Air Force's Atlas booster, Elliot said.
Typically, most delays are caused by weather conditions. "No one can put their finger on why there have been so many delays," Elliot said. "One theory is that the (reusable) launch vehicles are pretty old. But we really don't know. . . . A delay occurs because something has gone wrong. And we wanted to be very careful to ensure that it was right before it went up."
The last four delays were caused when potentially explosive leaks of liquid oxygen fuel were discovered. The Atlas, which is 25 years old, contains almost 18,000 gallons of fuel.
"Liquid oxygen is highly volatile," Kukowski said, "and a leak could cause it to go boom."
But the leaks and other delays never endangered the mission, Air Force Capt. Rick Sanford said. "We found all the problems before the countdown."