Nov. 15, 2018 -- An elite group of United Launch Alliance (ULA) specialists will serve as an ascent flight control team during launches of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft aboard Atlas V rockets.
Stationed in the Vehicle Ascent and Launch Operations Room (VALOR) at ULA’s Denver headquarters, this dedicated team will monitor the health and performance of the Atlas V rocket during every Starliner capsule’s climb to space.
The safety of astronauts is paramount in the return of human spaceflight launch capabilities to the United States, and ULA’s VALOR team takes this responsibility seriously. The highly trained engineers staffing the consoles will provide real-time status of the Atlas V vehicle and assist in making real-time decisions with Boeing’s flight director at Mission Control in Houston.
“This ULA Ascent Team in the VALOR is Boeing’s and the flight crew’s insight into the launch vehicle during ascent. If you compare it to the space shuttle program, we are equivalent to the BOOSTER position in Mission Control,” said Gregory Plettinck, the Ascent Room Coordinator (ARC).
VALOR is located in the Denver Operations Support Center, which provides engineering expertise during all ULA launches. This new room is isolated to ensure no distractions to the engineers’ work that goes beyond the normal level of ascent data monitoring.
Console positions will monitor all critical systems, like avionics, the engines, fuel tanks and the vehicle navigation. They also will be supplying confirmation of launch ascent events to Mission Control in Houston, such as engine ignitions, throttling events and cutoffs, and the jettisoning of the twin solid rocket boosters, the first stage, aeroskirt and Starliner itself.
“The team undergoes extensive training and all members must be certified to properly carry out their roles on day of launch. The safety of the flight crew depends on them,” said ULA Mission Manager Caleb Weiss.
In addition, VALOR will offer situational awareness of any off-nominal launch vehicle data in the telemetry stream from the rocket and prompt the engineers to report flight rule violations if they occur.
“In the event of a developing anomaly, the team will provide a recommendation to the flight director in Houston on the course of action to best keep the crew safe,” Weiss said.
The VALOR will be available to support other missions that use an Ascent Team such as the ULA-made Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage on NASA’s Space Launch System
Nov. 12, 2018 –The Launch Vehicle Adapter (LVA) that will attach Boeing’s first Starliner spacecraft to the Atlas V launch vehicle arrived at Cape Canaveral from the United Launch Alliance factory today.
The Mariner cargo vessel brought the LVA and two stages of a Delta IV rocket from our manufacturing plant in Decatur, Alabama. The ship, which was purpose-built to transport the large diameter Delta IV stages to Florida and California launch sites, set sail on Nov. 3 and traveled nearly 2,000 miles, arriving Nov. 11.
Technicians unloaded the elements today and they were transported for the LVA to begin integrated operations with the Centaur upper stage.
The LVA is the specially-designed structure that will be fitted to the top of Centaur. It will soon be attached to the Centaur during pre-launch stacking operations and eventually support the Starliner spacecraft during launch of the Orbital Flight Test next year.
Also part of the LVA is the aeroskirt, which ULA designed in collaboration with Boeing and NASA for added aerodynamic stability during the flight. This metallic orthogrid structure will smooth the air flow over the Starliner-Atlas V vehicle, and will be nominally jettisoned after the first stage of flight. The aeroskirt also has provisions for venting in the event the Starliner abort engines are fired.
OFT, the precursor to Boeing’s Crew Flight Test, is being performed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to return the nation’s human spaceflight launch capability.
Oct. 25, 2018 -- Barry “Butch” Wilmore, the NASA astronaut who piloted shuttle Atlantis’ STS-129 flight and commanded Expedition 42 on the International Space Station, stopped by ULA today to check out the dual-engine Centaur upper stage and engage with employees working on the Commercial Crew Program.
Oct. 19, 2018 -- The dual-engine Centaur upper stage that will launch Boeing's first Starliner spacecraft on its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station has arrived at Cape Canaveral for final processing by United Launch Alliance technicians.
The stage arrived Oct. 19 aboard the Mariner cargo ship, the ocean-going vessel that ULA uses to transport rocket stages from the manufacturing plant in Decatur, Alabama to the launch sites.
Wrapped in a protective covering for the transit, the Centaur was offloaded at the Port Canaveral wharf and driven on a specialized trailer to ULA's Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center for initial arrival checks.
Later, it will move to the Delta Operations Center to be raised vertically, mounted onto the interstage structure and fitted with the adapter that will support Starliner atop the rocket. That combined stack will then be ready for mating to the Atlas V first stage at the Vertical Integration Facility next year.
Mariner left Decatur on Oct. 10 for the journey of nearly 2,000 miles.
The venerable Centaur will resume flights in a dual-engine configuration -- which was once commonplace -- for this inaugural launch of Starliner. The last Centaur stage to utilize two engines was an Atlas IIAS rocket launch in 2004.
The Atlas V has needed only single-engine Centaurs to perform all of its launches to date to deliver payloads to their intended destinations, but the Starliner mass along with the need to shape the trajectory to limit astronaut accelerations and optimize ascent abort performance in case of a vehicle failure necessitates the thrust of two engines.
For the OFT launch, the Centaur will be powered by a pair of Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A-4-2 cryogenic engines, burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to generate nearly 45,000 pounds of thrust.
Centaur flew for the 250th time on Oct. 17 in launching the Air Force's AEHF-4 protected communications satellite. Two-thirds of those previous launches were dual-engine configurations.
The high-energy stage has launched spacecraft to every planet in our solar system, plus the moon, Pluto and solar observatories, and critical national security, communications and weather satellites.