Delta II Launch Site Demolished

Delta II launch
The launch of the GRAIL mission from Launch Complex 17 by a Delta II. The final launch from SLC-17. Credit: NASA/Tom Farrar and Tony Gray

At 11:00 UTC on the 12th of July 2018 the two launch towers of Space Launch Complex 17 were demolished by controlled explosions. The crowd of onlookers cheered as the towers fell, and took some great images and videos of the demolition. The launch site had not been used since 2011 when Delta II 7920H-10C fired NASA’s GRAIL spacecraft towards the Moon. The launch complex had two pads named 17A and 17B. The site is now to be reused as a test bed for potential lunar landers made by Moon Express. Boasting some very prestigious missions well beyond Earth SLC-17 will be remembered as an important part of the history of American space.

Delta Echo 1
A delta Rocket carrying NASA’s Echo 1 satellite launching August 12th 1960. The Echo satellite inflated in orbit to reflect signals back to Earth. Credit: NASA.

It was built in 1956 for use as a launch site for the PGM-17 Thor missile. This was the first operational ballistic missile that the United States had in their arsenal. The first launch of a Thor missile from 17A was 3rd of August 1957, with the first launch from 17B being 25th of January 1957. In the early 1960s the site was upgraded to support a variety of Expendable Launch Vehicles, all of which were derived in some way from the Thor booster. We now know this family of rockets as the Delta rockets used by the United Launch Alliance. Thirty five early Delta rocket missions were launched from LC-17 between 1960 and 1965. At that point operated by the US Air Force. In 1965 the operation of the site was transferred to NASA.

View of LC-17
View of LC-17 viewing East. A fairly old photo taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Credit: Martin Stupich

In 1988 the site was returned to the Air Force to support the Delta II program. The site had to be modified to facilitate the new more powerful rocket, with new platforms being installed and the D=Ground Service Tower was raised by 10 ft. The program entered service in 1989 after worries about the shuttle due to the Challenger disaster. Pad 17B was modified in 1997 to support a newer more powerful launch vehicle the Delta III which made its maiden flight on 26th of August 1998. Ending in failure, the next three attempts were failures in some sense and the programme was abandoned in late 2000. The Delta II continued to launch, with it’s fairly cheap price tag, and amazing track record it has been a favourite for NASA on a number of big projects. This post by NASA explains how the layout of the site and the small teams allowed LC-17 to be efficient and consistent over it’s 50 year lifespan. Some Delta II launches could be within days of each other because the launch crews were so effective.

Space Launch Complex 17
A view of Space Launch Complex 17, pads A and B taken in 2007. Delta II rocket with THEMIS aboard sits on Pad B. Credit: NASA/George Shelton

There have been some very famous spacecraft launched from SLC-17 in the years, mostly by Delta I and II rockets. Among them the Explorer and Pioneer space probes studying the physics of our solar system, and exploring some of it. All of the Orbiting Solar Observatories between 1962 and 1975 were launched from this site, as well as the Solar Maximum mission in 1980. Some of the first weather satellites like TIROS and later GOES were launched from SLC-17 allowing much better understanding of weather and improving (mainly military) weather reports. My personal favourite launches are those of the Mars Exploration Rovers in 2003. Both spirit and Opportunity (still going) were launched from this important launch site.

Spirit lifting off
A Delta II launching from pad SLC-17A with the MER-A or Spirit Rover towards Mars on June 10th 2003. Credit: NASA/KSC

Space Launch Complex 17 is also famous for being the last site where you had to press a button to launch the rocket. Most pads had a computerized auto-sequencer, much like the space shuttle, and in the modern world of rocketry it makes much more sense to do that. Even after 1995 when they got rid of the button (sadly) a human needed to press go on a computer to say launch. Bill Hodge, an electrical engineer at the launch complex said “If you didn’t push that button, it didn’t launch.” Tom Mahaney, project manager for the closeout of the complex described the site as “hectic, but not dysfunctional.” This is the best description I can find of this massively important historical site. In its time it has supported a total of 325 Thor and Delta rocket launches!

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