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10-Jun-03 | Delta flight 298 – Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

“The Delta did it again.”

With a smile, a shrug, and a bit of understatement, NASA ELV Flight Director Omar Baez summed up the flight of MER-A Spirit with what we have all come to know: if you want to get it there, send it on a Delta. Of course, it takes hundreds of people working at their peak performance to make a successful rocket launch, but the NASA/Delta team is like a paddling duck — on the surface, it all looks effortless.

The weather today was cooperative, and aside from some range communications issues that the Air Force scrambled to resolve, so was the hardware and software. The Delta 7925 left the pad a fraction of a second in advance of its instantaneous launch window, with an official liftoff time of 13:58:46.773 EDT, Tuesday, 10 June 2003.

The resulting flight was quite nominal. The first stage burn was a tad on the low and slow side (though well within 3-sigma), but the second stage compensated nicely on its first burn. An aft-facing videoroc showed the liftoff and booster jettison events with only the occasional signal loss, but since the camera was mounted on the interstage it stayed with the spent first stage as it slowly tumbled over the Atlantic Ocean. Once the ground-based tracking cameras and the videoroc had nothing to watch, the star of the show became Delta telemetry manager Marc Lavigne, as a camera followed him from console to console in what looked like a very crowded telemetry lab of Hangar AE. Lavigne was very reassuring in the face of ratty data from a shipborne USAF station called “OTTR” stationed off the west coast of Africa, making this his strongest “telemetry tap dance” to date.

The announcement of spacecraft separation came about 36 minutes, 40 seconds after liftoff, resulting in a typical round of applause in the Delta Operations Center or “soft blockhouse,” but that response could not compare to the loud and rousing cheers that went up at JPL when Spirit came over the hill to the Canberra tracking station and controllers saw that their baby is in an excellent state of health. MER-A Spirit is on course to intercept Mars on 4 January, 2004.

Meanwhile, Spirit‘s partner in adventure, Opportunity (MER-B), is in the KSC Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility where it has been fuelled and spin-balanced. It will be attached to its Star-48B third stage and placed in a transport container this week, with transportation to SLC-17B scheduled for Sunday, 15 June. The first launch opportunity for Opportunity opens on 25 June (late evening of 24 June at the Cape).

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