Boeing has a Delta IV rocket problem
– Tory Bruno (@torybruno) October 1, 2020
Abort. Abort. Abort. Abort. Abort.
Five times in a row Boeingof (NYSE: BA) and Lockheed Martinof (NYSE: LMT) rocket launch joint venture United launch alliance had to halt scheduled launches of a Boeing-designed Delta IV heavy-lift rocket. ULA originally planned to launch the rocket from Launch Complex-37B (LC-37B) at Cape Canaveral, carrying a spy satellite payload dubbed “NROL-44”, in June 2020. A series of technical issues and weather delays however kept the rocket on the ground.
So what exactly is the problem here?
Not so much the rocket as the launch pad
The good news for Boeing fans is that there is nothing wrong with its Delta rocket design per se – the opposite is more like it. Since Boeing designed it in 1960, 385 Deltas have been successfully launched, including nearly a dozen Delta IV Heavy rockets. Rather, the reports Ars Technica, the problem stems from the “aging infrastructure” of the LC-37B, which has been launching Delta IVs since 2002.
Four of the five failed NROL-44 launch attempts were actually caused by a “technical glitch.[s]”with the rocket launch pad. One launch was cleaned up because of a faulty” ground systems regulator “, and another for a” stuck regulator on the shoe side “and a” torn diaphragm “, which the ULA CEO Tory Bruno admitted “can happen over time”.
Then there were issues “with the launch pad swing arm retraction system” and, of course, inclement weather. The fifth and final attempt, Sept. 30, was cleaned up when a “sensor reported failure” just seven seconds before launch.
And now, with mechanical issues continuing to crop up, ULA has changed the date of its next attempt to “undefined”, pending a “test and [evaluation of the launch pad’s] swing arm retraction system. ”
Delta IV is leaving
Ars notes some general issues behind the series of nagging little issues that kept the NROL-44 grounded. Wear on the launch pad is one of them. Another is the scarcity of ULA launches from the launch complex.
On average, ULA only launched about one Delta IV rocket through year for the past four years. And with the launch complex idle for 364 days a year, there aren’t many opportunities to put it to the test and detect (and fix) launch cancellation issues before they happen. produce.
Industrial companies like ULA, are capital intensive companies and should spend a lot of money to maintain their infrastructure. But from a financial standpoint, ULA doesn’t have much incentive to put a lot of effort into upgrading the LC-37B. The company has already withdrawn its base Boeing Delta IV rocket. It only plans to launch three more Tri-Core Delta IV Heavies (including NROL-44) from LC-37B before this rocket is also withdrawn. With the curtain call of the Delta IV so close, ULA would focus on preparing the nearby LC-41 for the launch of the new Vulcan-Centaur rockets that will replace the Delta IV, rather than keeping the LC-37B in perfect shape. state.
What this means for Boeing investors
But here’s the thing: one of ULA’s strongest arguments when bidding for US government contracts has always been its technical prowess and its record launching 140 straight rockets in a row, without a single failure. (In fact, CEO Bruno insists on this, tweeting a triple-digit update after every successful launch):
– Tory Bruno (@torybruno) July 30, 2020
Now, it’s certainly understandable that ULA doesn’t want to go down too much more money in a depreciating asset like the LC-37B, which will likely become obsolete in a few years. But the more glitches ULA allows, the greater the risk that one of those glitches will cause a serious problem with a launch – an “anomaly” – ruining ULA’s record just before its new rocket family begins service.
Even though ULA avoids such a disaster, Ars notes that the company’s frequent launch cleanups “frustrate other users of the lineup.” Certainly, “scrubs” are endemic to this activity. Every business suffers from it from time to time. But ULA’s continued delays can damage its reputation with other rocket companies and NASA itself. After all, every launch window that ULA claims for itself – whether it uses it or not – is a launch window denied to another rocket company.
When you consider that ULA already can’t compete with rivals such as SpaceX on the price, reputation is truly ULA’s most valuable asset at this point. Maintaining its reputation for quality and punctuality is therefore essential to keep government contract money flowing to the owners of the company, Boeing and Lockheed. The more the reputation of ULA is eroded, the greater the risk to Boeing and Lockheed’s space activities – and profits – will be.
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