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21-Jun-07 | The beginning of the end?

The Wall Street Journal has published an article with troubling (but not wholly unexpected) speculation about the future of Delta II. Five GPS satellites and two Air Force experiments are slated to be launched before the end of 2008—but this will complete the USAF’s use of Delta II. Future military launches are expected to occur on larger vehicles, such as Delta IV and Atlas V, and NASA does not appear to have the budget to maintain three launch pads (two at Cape Canaveral and one at Vandenberg) and sustain Delta II launches on its own. In addition, the smaller capacity of Delta II hinders its ability to compete in the commercial market, where large telecommunications satellites and dual-payload launches are becoming the norm.

While even the smallest Delta IV has substantially more capacity than a Delta II-Heavy, the current cost of a launch is more than double. If Delta II is retired, the result would be a severe reduction in the number of small- and medium-sized unmanned missions that NASA will be able to fly. (NASA is at work on an internal study to determine its future use of Delta II; the results are expected by the end of 2007.) As happened in the early 1980s with the Space Shuttle, it appears the U.S. launch industry is working to put all its eggs into one basket again—to the detriment of science as well as access to space. (“Delta II’s Fate Worries Nonmilitary Users”, Wall Street Journal, 29-May-07)


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