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Deltas Line Up for Launch
If spaceflight has an assembly line, it's the Delta II checkout and assembly areas of Hangar M and Hangar AO at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two Delta II first stages sit side by side in one hangar, while another first stage undergoes preliminary testing next door by headphone-studded technicians.

Workers guide a Delta II first stage as it is placed on a trailer. There is also a pair of second-stage engines undergoing preparations for upcoming missions.

And several are coming up before the end of the year. Three are set for launch between June and September.

Image right: Workers guide a Delta II rocket's first stage onto a special trailer that will eventually take it to the launch pad and stand it up. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

"We are busy, but the concept of this facility is more of a schedule protection . . . We try to head off problems before we go to the pad," Launch Operations Manager Larry Penepent of United Launch Alliance said.

It is the first stage that provides the spectacle of liftoff, that first burst of smoke and fire that signals the start of a spacecraft's journey into space.

But before they get a chance to rock the ground and roar into space, each stage gets a thorough examination. That means a bank of computers and a host of engineers making the stage prove it can steer its nozzle on command and react to wind gusts or other conditions.

The test stand at Hangar AO belongs to the rocket slated to start the Phoenix lander on its way to Mars in August. With wires running in and out of access doors and a team of technicians posted near its engine, the Delta II swivels its engine nozzle and tells the workers what kind of shape it is in.

Larry Penepent manages the Delta II's launch preparations. "We're testing not only the flight hardware, but also the software that will be guiding the hardware," Penepent said.

Image left: Larry Penepent oversees preparations on Delta II rockets for United Launch Alliance. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

The first stage slated for the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter already went through those tests. It's over at Hangar M, waiting for a specially designed trailer for a ride that will end at Launch Pad 17B.

Next to it is the third rocket United Launch Alliance is prepping for a mission. It will carry a global positioning satellite into orbit, but not until it undergoes the same testing as the Phoenix booster.

"Delta IIs have always been extremely busy," Penepent said.

Laying on their sides in the hangars, the rockets still look impressive, although empty. They are rigid enough that they don't sag in the middle when hoisted by a pair of cranes, but their aluminum honeycomb construction was designed to save weight.

Technicians evaluate the second stage of a Delta II rocket. Image right: Technician Mike Serra checks out the second stage of a Delta II rocket that will launch the Phoenix lander to Mars. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

The first stage weighs six tons when empty, but most of that is in the engine. It's no problem for workers to wrap a sling around one end and attach a pair of hooks to the other, then lift the rocket up to place it on a trailer specially made to erect it on the launch pad.

Penepent praised the group of Delta workers who get the large craft ready for launches.

"A lot of the guys here have spent 20 to 30 years here, all on the Delta," Penepent said. "They’re dedicated. It's not just a nine-to-five job."

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center