Atlas to Mars, Shuttle to LEO (if we’re lucky)

LockMart Delivers Atlas 5 For NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission

The Atlas V launch vehicle for the next unmanned mission to Mars has arrived on the Cape and will be stacked for an August 10th launch to the red planet.

The Centaur upper stage was shipped out first on March 29, aboard an Antonov AN-124 cargo aircraft and arrived at Cape Canaveral that afternoon.

Two days later, the Atlas 5’s booster stage was shipped from Denver to Cape Canaveral March 31.

The Atlas launch team will now begin horizontal processing of the Atlas 5 booster and Centaur upper stage in the high bay facility at the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center at Launch Complex 41.

An Atlas V launched from Complex 41 put the largest commercial satellite ever (over 13,000 pounds) into orbit last month.

Also, in other Atlas news: Aerojet Tests Solid Rocket Motor At Air Force Lab

The Block ‘B’ solid rocket booster for the Atlas V was just tested on a new test stand at Edwards AFB. This booster is more powerful than the initial versions.

atlasnumbering.jpgThe Atlas V series is numbered according to a scheme which identifies the number of upper-stage engines, the number of solid rocket boosters, and the diameter of the payload fairing. The most recent launch (with the heavy satellite) was a 431. The Mars Recon Orbiter mission will be on a 401, the smallest Atlas V.

Atlas launch vehicles have flown 76 straight successful launches.

Meanwhile, Shuttle panel divided over NASA compliance

If you want to get a sick feeling in your stomach, read that story. It seems that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is split over NASA’s efforts and corrective actions since the COLUMBIA accident. And, even if the CAIB could agree, how much NASA would actually listen is still up in the air.

The nature of the task group’s final report, and how NASA will use it, is unclear. Reportedly, there is serious discussion on fundamental questions such as the definition of “compliance,” “verification,” and other terms. Even if the group lists unsatisfied CAIB recommendations, NASA may decide that those particular CAIB prescriptions do not apply to the first shuttle flight, but only later ones.

The task group had originally wanted to have 30 days between its reaching a final conclusion and the date of the shuttle launch. The schedule pressure of NASA having to consider the group’s recommendations as part of its own readiness review a week before launch may not allow sufficient time for thorough deliberation, observers have privately said.

The quality of NASA’s decision-making process is further threatened by the current leadership transition at the agency. The new administrator, Michael Griffin, has yet to be confirmed. Even if he were to take office prior to the shuttle launch date, he would be required to make perhaps the most important decision in the history of the shuttle program with only a few days notice.

Also worrisome to many is the fact that NASA’s current headquarters leadership consists essentially of the very same individuals who were in charge in January 2003 when the judgment was made that it was safe to fly the Columbia shuttle, and later, that it was safe to disregard multiple clues that significant damage might have been done to the thermal protection system during launch. [emphasis mine]

I have been a fairly harsh critic of the Shuttle program, and I remain so. I am also very hopeful for a successful mission, not only for the safety of the astronauts but for the future of Space Station operations and the manned US space program.

But I’m not holding my breath. My last odds were a ZERO chance that the shuttle would ever fly again, down from 50-50 previously. As I’ve been watching things unfold over the past few months, and especially in light of this new item, Murdoc is officially changing his odds to an on-schedule MAy 15th launch (excepting weather considerations) to 33%, and I am now 100% certain that the Shuttles will, indeed, fly again.

I forgot that “would” is not the same as “should”. I stand corrected.


  1. Wouldn’t a 301 be the smallest Atlas V? Or do you mean that it’s the smallest yet launched… Cool stuff.

  2. Nicholas: Yeah, you might be right. And the little graphic I posted does show a 3-meter fairing available. Some of the sites I looked at said that only 4 and 5 meter fairings were offered, and an article on the Mars mission stated that the 401 was the smallest. I saw another version of that graphic while working on this post, and I don’t think it had the 3-meter fairing listed, though I’m not sure. I grabbed this one because of the cool shadow it had and didn’t notice the 3-meter part. Maybe it’s an older version. Or maybe the 3-meter fairing is a more recent development. I’ll try to find out.