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Team rehearsals, new pad makes Atlas V ready for first launch

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- This Atlas V (411) stands on SLC-3E before its launch from Vandenberg, set for later this week.  It will carry a National Reconnaissance Office payload and be the first Altas V to launch from the west coast. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- This Atlas V (411) stands on SLC-3E before its launch from Vandenberg, set for later this week. It will carry a National Reconnaissance Office payload and be the first Altas V to launch from the West Coast. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The first launch of an Atlas V from the West Coast is scheduled to take a National Reconnaissance Office satellite into orbit from Space Launch Complex 3 here Thursday.

This milestone for Team Vandenberg is the product of the combined efforts of the 30th Space Wing, the National Reconnaissance Office, United Launch Alliance, the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Aerospace Corporation and more.

This Atlas V, known as AV006, was erected on SLC-3E on Sept. 26. Since then the team has prepared for the launch with several exercises and tests, said Capt. Daniel Rubalcaba, 4th Space Launch Squadron. With two integrated crew exercises and a mission dress rehearsal, all players simulated the launch countdown, from tower roll through satellite separation. And the wet dress rehearsal on Jan. 11 verified that cryogenics, including liquid oxygen and hydrogen, could be loaded safely into the first and second stages.

As mission flight commander, Captain Rubalcaba will sit on console on launch day to work the Air Force technical assessment of the launch countdown. Part of his responsibilities will be to work with the combined SMC, ULA, and Aerospace team on anomaly diagnosis and resolution.

"We're looking forward to seeing this launch off," he said. "Our team has been working really hard, and we're ready to see it go."

In another first, SLC 3 was significantly modified to get ready for the next generation of space launch vehicles. The Atlas V will be its first launch since the modifications were completed, said 1st Lt. Stacey Marzheuser. Previously used for 21 Atlas II launches, the pad received significant upgrades to accommodate the larger and more powerful booster. The tower was made taller, the overhang was extended with a much bigger crane, and the entire pad deck was reconfigured. The pad also features a brand new fixed launch platform.

No stranger to the EELV launch process or to her role as launch mission manager, Lieutenant Marzheuser has worked on both Delta IV missions from Vandenberg--first as the vehicle engineer, and then as mission manager. As mission manager, she supports booster processing, monitors facility status and serves as the 30th Space Wing's point of contact for mission integration. She said she feels lucky to be the mission manager again.

"I'm fascinated by this--to be in this role and to have this responsibility," she said. "To be the first to launch the Atlas V is pretty exciting."

This mission uses an Atlas V (411). The 411 designates the configuration. The 4 means a 4-meter diameter for the encapsulated payload fairing. The first 1 is for a single solid rocket booster, and the second 1 designates a single-engine Centaur, the second stage booster. The largest Atlas V that SLC-3E can accommodate is a 552, with a 5-meter fairing, 5 solid rocket boosters, and a 2-engine Centaur.

The public viewing site for Vandenberg launches is off of Corral Road near Vandenberg's main gate. To access the area, take Highway 1 to the Santa Maria Gate and proceed on Lompoc Casmalia Road. At the barriers, turn right onto Corral Road and bear left to the top. The launch countdown net and port-o-lets are set up near the bleachers.