SANTA BARBARA — The Air Force on Monday postponed the launch of a $37.3-million weather satellite that has been delayed 13 previous times and has come to symbolize anxiety over the nation's space program.
The launch of the NOAA-G satellite aboard an Atlas-E booster, which had been scheduled for Saturday, was postponed when a potentially explosive leak of liquid oxygen fuel was discovered, said NASA spokesman Jim Elliot. The launch has been rescheduled for Sept. 7.
"Anytime you've had the problems and experiences we've had this year, you're bound to be a lot more careful," Elliot said. "We want to make sure and do everything right. We don't want to have another failure. . . .
"From an emotional standpoint, this is a critical launch," Elliot added in a telephone interview from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It's critical for NASA's morale, and for the nation's morale."
The nation's space program has had a series of well-publicized failures, begining with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the death of its seven crew members on Jan. 28. Then, on April 18 at Vandenberg, a Titan missile exploded at launch, and a NASA Delta rocket spun out of control after launch May 3 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was intentionally blown up.
The NOAA-G weather satellite is the first launch NASA has been involved with since the Delta went down, and it has drawn extraordinary attention.
In the past, a weather satellite launch would have drawn about five local reporters, said Air Force Capt. Rick Sanford of Vandenberg. But the Air Force is expecting 200 reporters from throughout the country for the NOAA-G launch. Two television networks are going to televise the event live, he said.
The 3,775-pound weather satellite, built by RCA, was originally scheduled to be launched in August, 1985. Then the launch was delayed three times because of scheduling conflicts with the Air Force, which also launches from Vandenberg, Elliot said, and 11 times as a result of technological problems. Of those 11 delays, six were caused by difficulties with the weather satellite--which NASA is responsible for--and five were as a result of problems with the Air Force's Atlas booster, Elliot said.
But, Elliot said, lengthy delays are not unusual. The last NASA launch at Vandenberg in 1984 was delayed 13 times as a result of inclement weather and a number of other times due to technological problems.
'Looking for Problems'
The delays do not mean that the launch is "fraught with problems," Sanford said.
"We've launched about 1,500 missiles and space boosters from Vandenberg since the late 1950s and more than 90% of them were successful," he said. "To have that kind of success, you have to be very methodical in pre-launch testing procedures.
"We're looking for problems, finding some and taking care of them. We want to make sure we have the satellite in orbit. It doesn't do anybody any good to have it splashing down 100 yards off the coast of California."
NASA is responsible for placing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite into orbit. The spacecraft will gather meteorological data and relay that information to earth stations over the next three years, Sanford said. The satellite can also perform other functions, including measuring radiation in the atmosphere and pinpointing distress calls from ships and aircraft.
The leak of liquid oxygen was first suspected when the Atlas launch team noticed a temperature drop in a section of the missile last Tuesday, Sanford said. The team then directed a remote camera to the spot and on Friday located the leak. Another leak had been discovered and repaired two weeks earlier.
"It (the Atlas) is almost a flying fuel tank," Sanford said. "It has over 18,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and it resembles a stainless steel balloon. If it loses the pressurization the whole vehicle will collapse."
While the NASA weather satellite has been beset by delays, the Air Force pointed to a successful launch Saturday of an unarmed MX missile that carried nine re-entry vehicles to two separate target areas in the Pacific Ocean.
The missile was launched Saturday morning, and about 30 minutes later delivered the re-entry vehicles to areas 70 miles apart on the Kwajalein Missile Range, 4,200 miles from Vandenberg, an Air Force spokesman said. It was the 13th of 20 planned tests of the MX.