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07-May-99 | Delta flight 269 – Orion F-3 (FAILURE)

Boeing has suffered a severe setback in the Delta III program, as the second mission has failed to achieve the proper orbit.

The spectacular night liftoff from SLC-17B, intending to carry the Orion F-3 comsat to geosynchronous orbit for Hughes and Loral, occurred at exactly 21:00 EDT on 4 May. The first stage with its nine booster motors (including 3 with thrust vector control) worked perfectly, vindicating Boeing’s confidence in the vehicle and the improvements made following last August’s guidance failure. Though a matter of some concern, the nozzle extension of the Pratt & Whitney RL10B-2 second stage deployed as expected, and the stage’s first burn was nominal.

However, the second stage shut down less than one second after beginning its second burn, which was intended to last for 151 seconds and raise apogee from about 750 to 14,000 nautical miles. This is the second failure of an RL10-based stage in a week, following the launch of a Titan 4 on Friday, though as yet the causes of these two mishaps are unknown and likely unrelated. Boeing has convened an investigation board, headed by Dr. Russell Reck, director of engineering technology for Expendable Launch Systems. Initial data point to the upper stage engine hardware, rather than the guidance software, so upcoming Delta II flights should not be affected.

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