The Cape, Chapter I, Section 7

USAF Space Organizations and Programs

Development of the ATLAS II and DELTA II Launch Vehicles and the TITAN IV/CENTAUR Upper Stage

After the Challenger disaster and the second TITAN 34D mishap, the Air Force awarded Martin Marietta a $1,558,000,000 contract for 13 additional TITAN IVs. The Air Force also planned to buy from 12 to 20 new boosters based on a "yet-to-be-defined" Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) design. The MLVs were needed to launch Global Positioning System (GPS) NAVSTAR Block II satellites that were rescheduled from the Shuttle launch manifest following Challenger's ill-starred mission. On 1 August 1986, Space Division awarded four six-month R&D contracts worth $5 million apiece to McDonnell Douglas, Martin Marietta, General Dynamics and Hughes Aircraft to develop the initial MLV concept. In an effort to meet an initial MLV/NAVSTAR launch date in January 1989, Space Division also released the RFP for the MLV production/launch contract shortly thereafter. Hughes, General Dynamics, Martin Marietta and McDonnell Douglas delivered their proposals for the new contract in late October 1986, and Space Division awarded the MLV contract to McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company on 21 January 1987. Under the basic contract (valued at $316,504,000), McDonnell Douglas agreed to deliver and launch seven upgraded DELTA space boosters called DELTA IIs. The contract had options for the production and launch of 13 more DELTA IIs, bringing the potential value of the entire contract up to approximately $669 million.42

Two versions of the DELTA II were built under the contract and its options: the basic Model 6925 and the improved Model 7925. Both models featured an 85.7-foot-long first stage (versus the old DELTA's 74-foot-long first stage), a 19.6-foot-long second stage, wider payload fairings (9.5 feet versus 8 feet for the DELTA) and more powerful Morton Thiokol Corporation Castor IVA solid-propellant rocket motors. Fully assembled, the DELTA IIs stood approximately 130 feet tall. Both models were designed to boost NAVSTAR Block II satellites into 10,898-nautical-mile-high orbits, but the less powerful Model 6925 was limited to payloads around 1,850 pounds. As a result of this limitation, Model 6925s were scheduled to be used on only the first nine NAVSTAR Block II missions launched from the Cape. The more powerful Model 7925s would boost more advanced Block II payloads weighing up to 2,100 pounds apiece. Though the DELTA II program office estimated the first launch might occur as early as October 1988, a slow startup in McDonnell Douglas' production facility at Pueblo, Colorado pushed the launch date back to its original estimate of January 1989. The first DELTA II/NAVSTAR mission was launched from Pad 17A on 14 February 1989. The Model 6925 used for that flight performed well, and the mission was successful.43

Figure 35: First DELTA II/NAVSTAR launch
14 February 1989

The Challenger disaster had profound and, in some instances, salutary effects on the launch community, but it also contributed to NASA's decision to give up its CENTAUR G' (upper stage) project. Less than two weeks before the fateful mission, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Flight (Rear Admiral Richard H. Truly) had been pressing his people to resolve "open items" pertaining to the CENTAUR. Following the tragedy on January 28th, KSC's Safety Officer refused to approve advanced processing of the first CENTAUR in February 1986. He cited "insufficient verification of hazard controls" from the Lewis Research Center and the CENTAUR's developer, General Dynamics. In March, NASA Chief Engineer Milton A. Silveira informed Rear Admiral Truly that there was "a significant degree of concern" about Shuttle/CENTAUR safety. Admittedly, there were also serious concerns over the CENTAUR's cost overruns (e.g., $100 million in 1985 and approximately $170 million for safety corrections in 1986), but the Challenger disaster forced NASA to take a second hard look at the safety aspects of the liquid oxygen/hydrogen-fueled CENTAUR. In the safety-sensitive atmosphere of the post-Challenger era, the CENTAUR would never see the inside of a Shuttle cargo bay. On 23 April 1986, Rear Admiral Truly ordered a halt to all work on the CENTAUR; after further discussions with his safety experts in May and June, Truly prudently decided to cancel the Shuttle/CENTAUR project on 19 June 1986.44

Cancellation of the Shuttle/CENTAUR project forced the Air Force to replan its TITAN IV/CENTAUR program, but there were opportunities as well as misfortunes arising from this development. The TITAN IV/CENTAUR G had been managed by Space Division through its TITAN IV contract with Martin Marietta since February 1985. A stop work order at the inception of the program had already delayed the start of the TITAN IV/CENTAUR G by about a year, and termination of the Shuttle/CENTAUR program caused further delays as General Dynamics regrouped its CENTAUR effort. The elimination of the Shuttle/CENTAUR program ended the Air Force's "piggyback ride" on NASA's CENTAUR G' technology, but it also disentangled the G's development from the G' and forced the Air Force to look to its TITAN IVs as the only path into space for payloads requiring the CENTAUR upper stage. The CENTAUR's avionics and weight problems came clearly into focus under this pressure, and the Air Force conducted a thorough structural review of the CENTAUR's design in June 1986 to ensure the upper stage could withstand a TITAN IV lift-off. In July 1986, the CENTAUR program office encouraged General Dynamics to "consider all realistic enhancements" for the CENTAUR's major subsystems. There was also an increased demand for high fidelity CENTAUR data due to the increased number of TITAN IV/CENTAUR customers.45

Like the DELTA program, the ATLAS/CENTAUR program got a new lease on life under military and commercial auspices following the Challenger disaster. Unfortunately, ATLAS II/CENTAUR operations did not begin as quickly as the DELTA II's operations: the transition was hampered by a two-year delay in the ATLAS/CENTAUR-68 mission due to a ruptured CENTAUR upper stage. NASA sponsored its final ATLAS/CENTAUR mission from Pad 36B on 25 September 1989, and Complex 36 was transferred back to the Air Force in January 1990. In the meantime, the Air Force transferred its Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) III payloads and several other military payloads from the Shuttle's manifest to a launch schedule for a new medium launch vehicle, advertised as the MLV II. (The new vehicle was needed to boost payloads weighing as much as 4,900 pounds into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg and up to 5,800 pounds into geosynchronous orbit from the Cape.) The MLV II would be contracted out as a "commercial launch service acquisition." This meant that the contractor had to agree to provide all services needed to test, process, integrate and launch the vehicle. McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics dominated the MLV II competition in early 1988, and General Dynamics Space Systems Division won the contract on 16 June 1988. The MLV II would be based on an elongated version of General Dynamics' ATLAS/CENTAUR vehicle. The basic contract called for the production and launch of two ATLAS II/CENTAURs, and there were options for nine more vehicles and launches. Together with all its options, the ATLAS II/CENTAUR contract was valued at more than $500 million. The contract was placed on a Firm-Fixed-Price basis, and the government expected each ATLAS II/CENTAUR launch to cost no more than $40 million under that arrangement (i.e., $100 million less apiece than launches aboard the Shuttle). The first military ATLAS II/CENTAUR was launched from Pad 36A on 11 February 1992, and it carried an operational DSCS III spacecraft into orbit. General Dynamics also fielded commercial versions of its new booster (e.g., ATLAS II/CENTAUR and ATLAS IIA/CENTAUR). The first commercial ATLAS II/CENTAUR was launched from Pad 36B on 7 December 1991, and the first commercial ATLAS IIA/CENTAUR lifted off the same site on 10 June 1992. The ATLAS II/CENTAUR was praised as the "final link" in the Air Force's space launch recovery program.46

The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925