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.
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.
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
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.