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Vandenberg prepares for first Atlas V launch

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.--
Mr. George Matthews (right), a Centaur propulsion and pneumatics engineer, speaks with the local media about the upcoming Atlas V launch during a Jan. 31 tour of Space Launch Complex-3 here. The Atlas V is scheduled to launch Feb. 26 and will be the first one of it's kind to launch from the West Coast. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.-- Mr. George Matthews (right), a Centaur propulsion and pneumatics engineer, speaks with the local media about the upcoming Atlas V launch during a Jan. 31 tour of Space Launch Complex-3 here. The Atlas V is scheduled to launch Feb. 26 and will be the first one of it's kind to launch from the West Coast. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Vandenberg AFB opened its doors to members of the local and national media for their first encounter with an Atlas V rocket as it was being prepared Thursday at Space Launch Complex-3.

The Atlas V rocket will be the first of its kind to launch from the West Coast and is scheduled to lift-off Feb. 26.

"Atlas V will provide our nation assured access to space," said Lt. Col. Heather Knight, the 4th Space Launch Squadron commander.

The Atlas V is part of a new generation of rockets called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, or EELV, built by the United Launch Alliance, or ULA; a joint space-lift venture between Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.

The Atlas V is a very versatile platform, says ULA. It's capable of lifting anywhere from 21,500 to 65,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

The EELV program was created by the Air Force to reduce the cost of space-lift by more than 25 percent over previous launch systems like Titan II, Titan IV and Delta II, according to Colonel Knight. 

While the coming launch will be the first Atlas V launch out of Vandenberg, it will not be the first West Coast EELV launch. The two Delta IV launches out of SLC-6 in 2006 were the first EELV launches from Vandenberg.

With a perfect history of 12 for 12 successful launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., the Atlas V has been a very effective system; and the space community at Vandenberg is looking forward to its arrival. 

"This has been a four year effort to bring Atlas V to Vandenberg," Colonel Knight said. "We are very excited to see it launch."

Previously, SLC-3 was used to launch the smaller Atlas II rockets. However, the complex had to undergo a series of modifications in order to process and launch the larger and more powerful Atlas V, according to Cameron Hedges, the SLC-3 chief of engineering services.

Major modifications included a 30-foot height extension to the mobile service tower, which houses the rocket during its construction, a 20-foot depth increase in the exhaust duct to direct the rocket exhaust during launch, a new 250-ton platform to carry the weight of the rocket, and numerous improvements to the SLC-3 ground systems and control centers, according to ULA.

"It was really a community effort," Mr. Hedges said. "Most of the people who work on this launch complex live in this area."

Overall ULA spent nearly two years and about $300 million improving the facility, according to Mr. Hedges.

Vandenberg's next Atlas V launch is scheduled for June.