Delta II Returns to NASA Launch Manifest Along with Falcon 9

Delta II Returns to NASA Launch Manifest Along with Falcon 9

NASA announced today that it has chosen the Delta II to launch three environmental satellites and Falcon 9 to launch another.  The new launches for the Delta II return the venerable rocket to NASA’s launch manifest after what many thought was its final launch last fall.   As for Falcon 9, it is the first time SpaceX’s privately-developed rocket has been selected to launch a satellite for NASA outside of the COTS program.

Delta II is one of the most reliable rockets in U.S. launch vehicle history.  For decades NASA and the Air Force relied heavily on the Delta II, with the Air Force shouldering many of the infrastructure costs.  The Air Force’s transition to using the Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) left NASA with the quandary of deciding whether to also rely on the EELVs or find a way to fund the additional infrastructure costs to enable it to utilize the four or five Delta IIs remaining in the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) inventory.   The loss of two NASA earth science satellites, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in 2009 and GLORY in 2011, on Taurus XL rockets undercut confidence in that Orbital Sciences Corp. product. energizing efforts to find a way to use ULA’s Delta II’s.  

Today’s announcement is for three of the Delta II’s to be used for launching three earth science/environmental satellites:  NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) in October 2014, OCO-2 (a replacement for the lost OCO) in July 2014, and NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1) in November 2016.   The total value of those launch services is $412 million according to NASA. 

At the same time, NASA announced that a Falcon 9 will launch NOAA’s Jason-3 satellite, an operational ocean altimetry mission conducted jointly with Europe’s EUMETSAT.   The first two satellites in the series were developmental satellites built by NASA and the French space agency CNES.   The value of the Falcon 9 launch services contract is $82 million.  Launch is scheduled for December 2014.  SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has been launched three times, each time successfully, as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) test program to demonstrate that it could be used to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  SpaceX has been eager to win additional government contracts as a “new entrant” in the launch services business.

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