Delta 4/Orion launch delayed by wind, valve problems

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 09:40 AM EST, 12/04/14: Orion launch scrubbed, reset for Friday
  • Updated at 11:30 AM EST, 12/04/14: Correcting/updating weather forecast
  • Updated at 02:15 PM EST, 12/04/14: Managers optimistic about Friday launch try (updating with quotes and details)
CBS News

Launch of a powerful Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's new Orion deep space exploration craft was called off Thursday because of high winds and trouble with sluggish propellant valves, forcing mission managers to order a 24-hour scrub for the long-awaited test flight.

Liftoff of the unmanned Orion capsule was reset for 7:05 a.m. EST (GMT-5) Friday, assuming problems with booster propellant fill-and-drain valves can be resolved in time and assuming the weather cooperates. Forecasters predicted just a 40 percent chance of good weather Friday during the booster's two-hour 39-minute launch window, improving to 70 percent "go" on Saturday.

Launch of a Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's Orion deep space exploration vehicle was scrubbed Thursday after a variety of problems, including high winds and trouble with critical propellant valves. Launch on a long-awaited unmanned test flight was reset for Friday at 7:05 a.m. EST. (Credit: NASA)

"Our team knows our rocket very, very well," said Dan Collins, chief operating officer of rocket-builder United Launch Alliance. "The team was absolutely on their game, listening to everything the rocket was telling us, and it ultimately told us it wasn't ready to go today. And so we'll go make sure we've got a happy rocket and as soon as we do that, we're going to get back to the pad and send Orion off to a very, very successful test flight."

The scrub was a frustrating disappointment for tens of thousands of spectators who lined area roads and beaches hoping to watch the heavy-lift Delta 4 rocket climb away from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, kicking off the maiden flight of a spacecraft NASA hopes will one day carry astronauts on voyages into deep space.

While the Orion capsule's debut is an unmanned test flight, interest is high because it represents the first spacecraft built to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit since the last Apollo moon mission four decades ago.

But the countdown was repeatedly interrupted, starting with an errant boat in the offshore danger zone, followed by two actual delays triggered by high ground winds and finally by problems closing fill-and-drain valves carrying liquid oxygen and hydrogen to the booster's three RS-68 first stage engines.

Collins said the valves "had gotten cold and a little sluggish in their performance" as the flight was delayed well into the launch window.

Troubleshooters initially tried sending repeated commands to open and close the valves, but they still saw problems with liquid hydrogen valves in the left-side and center boosters, two of three making up the Delta 4's first stage.

They then pressurized the propellant tanks to 35 pounds per square inch in a bid to help coax the valves into normal operation, but again the hardware failed to cooperate. After a final bit of troubleshooting, and with time running out in the launch window, mission managers ordered a scrub and tentatively reset launch for Friday.

"This is something we have seen on one previous (Delta 4) Heavy launch where we had a long window and had gone quite a ways into the window," Collins said. "So we're going to execute the same procedures that we did after that last attempt and (we're) very confident we're going to be able to exonerate the hardware and then make an attempt (Friday)."

But ULA can only make two launch attempts in three days before standing down to refill an 850,000-gallon liquid hydrogen storage tank near the launch pad. Collins said if the rocket is fueled for a Friday launch try and then is delayed for some reason, the flight would slip to Sunday at the earliest, assuming Air Force tracking and telemetry systems are available.

Because the Orion spacecraft is still under development at Lockheed Martin and has not yet been formally turned over to the government, Exploration Flight Test 1 -- EFT-1 -- is being managed for NASA by Lockheed Martin, which procured the Delta 4 rocket from United Launch Alliance under a commercial contract.

As such, ULA was responsible for the countdown and launch procedures, advising the EFT-1 Mission Management Team chaired by Lockheed Martin mission manager Bryan Austin. While NASA managers are part of the MMT, the decision to launch or scrub based on the rocket's readiness to fly is up to United Launch Alliance.

Whenever it gets off the ground, the EFT-1 mission will mark a major milestone for NASA and its long-range goal of building and testing flight hardware for eventual flights to deep space.

Major goals for the EFT-1 mission include subjecting the Orion capsule's 16.5-foot-wide heat shield to the rigors of re-entry and to make sure its computer hardware, software and navigation systems can endure the higher radiation levels found outside the protection of the Van Allen belts that shield space station astronauts.

Equally important, engineers want to verify the performance of the giant braking parachutes and the pyrotechnic systems needed to jettison the structural panels, the capsule's launch fairing and dummy abort motor and the protective parachute cover.

If all goes well, NASA hopes to launch another Orion on a second unmanned test flight atop the agency's new Space Launch System mega rocket in 2018, followed by the first piloted mission in 2021. The agency ultimately hopes to use the Orion/SLS system to collect samples from a captured asteroid and, eventually, to carry astronauts to Mars.