December 22, 2004

Huge Boeing Rocket Lifts Off for Test Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- A massive new Boeing rocket lumbered from its seaside pad Tuesday on a mission to prove the vehicle is capable of lofting super-sized military satellites into orbit.

Flames and smoke engulfed the lower portion of the 232-foot-tall, triple-bodied rocket as it labored to clear the launch tower before gaining momentum and shooting skyward.

The successful launch was a critical milestone for the Delta 4 Heavy, which features three of the company's common core boosters joined side-by-side. Fired simultaneously, each of the three hydrogen-powered Rocketdyne-built RS-68 main engines generates 17 million horsepower, roughly the equivalent 11 Hoover Dams.

After the three main boosters fell away, a Pratt & Whitney-built RL10 liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen-powered second stage kicked in to boost the payloads into orbit.

Identical boosters had flown individually on three earlier Delta 4 Medium launches. Tuesday's launch marked the first time the boosters have been flown in the triple-body configuration.

"This launch system is the most complex system to come to the pad since the space shuttle," said Dan Collins, vice president of Boeing's expendable launch systems.

Rather than risk an expensive military satellite aboard the new rocket, the Air Force paid Boeing $140 million for the demonstration flight. A dummy payload designed to replicate future military satellites rode atop the rocket and collected information that will be used to evaluate the mission. The rocket also carried two tiny experimental satellites designed by university students.

Air Force Colonel Mark Owen said the launch was a milestone in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, funded by the Air Force to create a new generation of rockets to lift heavy military payloads into orbit.

"America has a lot riding on this," he said.


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