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Atlas V is 'Go for Launch!'
When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter leaves Earth to study our nearest planetary neighbor, it will become the first NASA spacecraft to soar into space aboard the new Atlas V launch vehicle built by Lockheed Martin. In the final moments before liftoff, the launch team will give the "go for launch" and the sleeping giant will roar to life.

The Atlas V rocket is fueled for testing at the launch pad. Just what does it take to bring a rocket like this to that moment when it defies gravity with tremendous force and sends a spacecraft skyward? As the Atlas V rocket stands gleaming in the Florida sun, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 is the end of a long road the rocket had to travel before being chosen to carry this important mission.

The rockets that carry NASA's unmanned missions are not built by the Agency, but purchased from private companies -- in the case of the Atlas V, from International Launch Services. Before a new launch vehicle can fly a NASA mission, it must pass rigorous certification standards established in the 1990s to govern the requirements for using new launch vehicles.

The Launch Services Program technical staff at NASA's Kennedy Space Center refined and implemented the policy in preparation for the launch carrying the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, into space. In addition to completing the certification of the Atlas V 401 launch vehicle -- the Atlas chosen for MRO -- the staff also performed technical oversight to match the rocket with the mission's unique requirements.

Image at Right: At Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Atlas V rocket is fueled as part of a "wet" dress rehearsal. Image credit: NASA/KSC

But determining that this is a match made for the heavens isn't an easy task. It took tremendous effort by NASA engineers. Certification of a new launch vehicle is a crucial first step because, historically, new launch vehicles have a higher rate of failure than those with a long record of successful flights. And while the Atlas family of rockets has an outstanding success rate, the Atlas V is a new addition to the family. Couple that with the fact that a one-of-a-kind mission like that of the MRO requires launch within a very constrained time period, and certification becomes a vital step in the march toward Mars.

One critical element of the certification, with help from the U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Organization and other NASA centers, included a review of about 170 flight-critical items. Another used an approach similar to a launch failure investigation, in which experts examined the possible root causes of potential mission loss by looking at a multitude of critical elements that could fail and how to prevent those failures from happening. NASA engineers also created mathematical models to verify the Atlas V will fly the correct trajectory with appropriate control stability without overloading the MRO spacecraft during its ride into space.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, inside its protective fairing, is raised to the top of the Atlas V rocket. Image at Left: Encapsulated in its protective fairing, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) nears the top of the Vertical Integration Facility on Launch Complex 41. Image credit: NASA/KSC

In addition, previous versions of the Atlas provided NASA with extensive information regarding the fabrication process for components common to the Atlas V. Newer components required more on-site examination, such as a facility assessment in Khimky, Russia, where the RD-180 engine is built. A final major element involved reviewing previous Atlas V launches using flight data to determine how the vehicle met preflight predictions. With certification complete, Kennedy's Launch Services Program team gave the "go" to launch the MRO mission aboard the launch vehicle.

At the end of this long road sits the Atlas V at Launch Complex 41. The rocket stands poised to carry the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on an exciting mission to explore our planet's neighbor, Mars, and pave the way for future travelers to venture there, as well.

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center