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    ULA Delta IV Heavy set to fly from Cape Canaveral for the final time

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    Marketed as “the most metal of rockets,” United Launch Alliance’s massive triple-core Delta IV Heavy roars to life amid a blazing hydrogen fireball on the launch pad, with raging flames billowing and blackening its orange boosters seconds before liftoff.

    Heavy-metal-music pyrotechnic comparisons aside, Rob Long has a soft spot for the retiring mega-rocket — as do many of thousands of employees involved with the program the past two decades on the Space Coast. He worked for 3½ years as the National Reconnaissance Office’s mission manager preparing for the agency’s first Delta IV Heavy launch: NROL-26 in January 2009 from Cape Canaveral.

    And Long said he considers the Delta IV Heavy “near and dear to my heart.”

    Cape Canaveral: Is there a launch today? Upcoming rocket launch schedule for SpaceX, NASA in Florida

    “That was a great learning experience. You learn soup-to-nuts on how to take a satellite and put it on a launch vehicle,” recalled Long, who is now president and CEO of Space Florida.

    Now, ending an era in American spaceflight, the 16th and final Delta IV Heavy rocket is scheduled to lift off at 1:40 p.m. Thursday from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. However, ULA officials reported that the forecast only shows a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions. 

    The mission marks the 389th and last flight of the Delta program, which dates to 1960. ULA is replacing the retiring rocket with the next-generation Vulcan, which logged a successful maiden flight in January from the Cape. Crews can configure the flexible, less-expensive Vulcan with zero, two, four or six solid-rocket boosters to accommodate an array of orbital missions.

    “We’re into reusability, and we’re into new ways of doing business. On one hand, it’s nostalgic. And it’s personally a great memory for me. But at the same time, I think it speaks to just moving forward in the industry — and not looking back,” Long said.

    Tune in Thursday to floridatoday.com/space for FLORIDA TODAY Space Team live coverage and updates on the last Delta IV Heavy launch, starting about two hours before liftoff.

    The historic rocket will soar skyward with a classified payload on the NROL-70 national security mission, conducted in tandem with the NRO and the Space Force’s Space Systems Command. The massive rocket launches the NRO’s heaviest satellites.

    ULA CEO: ‘It’s a beautiful rocket’

    FLORIDA TODAY asked ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno about the Delta IV Heavy retirement last month during an interview at the SpaceCom convention in Orlando.

    “It’s a beautiful rocket. It’s launched amazing missions. It’s the most metal of all rockets, as I like to say — it sets itself on fire before going to space,” Bruno said.

    “I just love it. And so, we’re all going to miss it. So it’ll be bittersweet,” he said.

    Why does the Delta IV Heavy seem to “emerge from a cloud of fire” at liftoff? A ULA video explains that the fireball is created by buoyant hydrogen gas that ignites before the engines come up to power.

    Bruno noted that he discussed the rocket’s fiery characteristics with the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton, one of his favorite bands, when he attended their concert in Denver in September 2022.

    “We brought them a Delta IV Heavy model. We were in the back with them in their green room. They were getting rocket science lessons, and they knew it was the most metal of all rockets — but they wanted to know why. So we had fun with them,” Bruno said.

    Delta IV Heavy debuted in 2004

    The Delta IV Heavy debuted during a December 2004 demonstration flight from Launch Complex 37. At that time, it was the most powerful rocket launched from Cape Canaveral save the Saturn V and space shuttles.

    Three years later, the inaugural Delta IV Heavy mission with a payload launched in November 2007 from the Cape, lifting a U.S. Air Force satellite designed to provide early warning of intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Long’s NROL-26 mission in January 2009 represented the rocket’s second mission and third overall flight.

    Long was an Air Force captain when he started his 3½ years of mission-management duties, then got promoted to major by liftoff. He went on to command Space Launch Delta 30 as a colonel at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

    According to a Space Force summary, the Delta family of rockets, which includes smaller models such as Delta II, has delivered a wide array of payloads “including military, government, and commercial weather, communications and science satellites, robotic probes for exploration, eight Mars rovers, and one telescope” during the past 60-plus years.

    “These launches place critical capabilities into orbit for our nation and our allies in what are dynamic times for the space community,” Col. Jim Horne, senior materiel leader for Space System Command’s Launch Execution Delta, said in a press release ahead of the final launch.

    “Every member of our launch team understands what’s at stake and works with care and efficiency to prepare for what’s going to be a tremendous launch,” Horne said.

    Last launch ‘will be one for the books’

    ULA’s mission preparation timeline for the last Delta IV Heavy launch:

    • May: The rocket arrived at Cape Canaveral aboard ULA’s R/S RocketShip, a 312-foot cargo vessel, after a trek from the company rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama.
    • December: Crews raised the rocket upright at Launch Complex 37.
    • Feb. 26: Encapsulated inside a 5-meter-wide fairing, the NROL-70 payload was delivered to the pad and hoisted atop the rocket, boosting the vehicle’s height to 235 feet. 

    After the NROL-70 mission wraps up, SpaceX officials hope to soon take over Launch Complex 37 and “modify, reuse or demolish” ULA’s infrastructure to create a new Starship-Super Heavy launch base by 2026.

    Air Force officials are working on a Starship environmental impact statement with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard. Two weeks ago, Space Force officials collected public comments on the proposal during open houses in Cocoa, Titusville and Cape Canaveral. A virtual public meeting featuring a narrated slideshow is online at spaceforcestarshipeis.com.

    The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is selling Delta IV Heavy launch viewing tickets for $70. Spectators will travel by bus past the KSC gates to the Apollo/Saturn V Center to watch the huge rocket lift off beyond Banana Creek.

    “Being located on an active spaceport, we have seen many milestone launches here at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. And the last launch of the Delta IV Heavy will be one for the books,” Therrin Protze, visitor complex COO, said in an email.

    “Celebrating this final launch here at the visitor complex, where guests can see many history-making rockets — including two earlier Delta rockets in our rocket garden — is an unmatched experience that we are excited to bring to our visitors,” Protze said.

    Rick Neale is a Space Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or Rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter/X: @RickNeale1

    Space is important to us and that’s why we’re working to bring you top coverage of the industry and Florida launches. Journalism like this takes time and resources. Please support it with a subscription here.

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