Boeing's Delta III rocket shines after back-to-back flops

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Boeing's newest Delta III rocket successfully delivered a dummy satellite to orbit during a critical test flight Wednesday after back-to-back failures.

It was the first satisfactory launch of a Delta III. Boeing spent the past year revamping the program to prevent another embarrassing - and costly - flop.

Everything went well as the $85 million rocket lifted off just after 7 a.m. and arced out over the Atlantic. On board was a 5-foot steel spool designed to mimic the satellite that flew on the last Delta III and wound up in the wrong orbit.

The spool reached the proper orbit a half-hour later, right on schedule.

''I am thrilled,'' said Gale Schluter, vice president of Boeing's expendable launch vehicles. ''It is a major success for us.''

Anxiety had been high among Boeing workers worked round the clock for weeks to prepare for this flight. The rocket is essential in order for Boeing to capture more of the launch market.

''I really feel the world is watching us,'' Jay Witzling, vice president of the Delta III program, said before the launch. ''We all want to see success so that we can bring some of these payloads that are flying on offshore launchers back to the U.S.''

Despite the high stakes, Witzling said he did not view the mission as ''a make-or-break'' for Boeing.

A dummy satellite was launched because the company wanted to prove the rocket's reliability and was reluctant to wait for a paying customer.

''We felt we needed to get this behind us,'' said chief engineer Rick Arvesen.

The satellite will serve some scientific purpose. The Air Force had black stripes painted on the 9,500-pound white spool to track it in orbit as part of a test.

The first Delta III, in 1998, carried a broadcasting satellite that was destroyed along with the rocket in an explosion after launch. Flawed computer software was to blame. The second flight, in 1999, left a communication satellite in a useless orbit when an engine combustion chamber ruptured.

The failures were part of an unrelated string of botched U.S. launches that grounded certain rockets for months.

The Delta III losses, alone, exceeded $450 million. Millions more were spent on the ensuing investigations.

Boeing hopes to launch its next Delta III next year. Company officials in Huntington Beach, Calif., envision an annual flight rate of four to six beginning in 2002, and expect the Delta III to be replaced by the yet-untested Delta IV by 2005.


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