The Delta II rocket from McDonnell Douglas (and then Boeing, now sold by United Launch Alliance) has been a reliable workhorse since its first flight in 1989, putting a large number of NASA payloads into orbit, among other things. Most of the recent Mars missions (up until Curiosity, which exceeded its capacity) launched aboard it: Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Climate Observer, Mars Polar Lander, Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit & Opportunity, and Mars Phoenix Lander. Other deep space missions include NEAR-Shoemaker, GRAIL, the Spitzer Space Telescope (last of the Great Observatories), and the Dawn spacecraft now winding into its mapping orbit around Ceres, among many others. It has flown 153 times, with only two (rather spectacular) failures.
But all things must come to an end, and Delta II is no exception. Production ended a while ago, and there are now just three vehicles left. Two are sold: one to launch JPSS 1, and the other to launch IceSat 2, both for NASA. There is no customer for the third, and none likely to materialize, so thoughts are turning to its fate. For now, ULA is retaining it for spare parts for the two sold vehicles, in case something happens before flight and a swap is needed. But after that, it may end up going to a museum. KSC’s Visitor Center? Many Delta IIs launched from Cape Canaveral (though today the only remaining launch site is a pad at Vandenberg in California). The National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, in recognition of this vehicle’s extensive history? The Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH? Or perhaps somewhere else? Time will have to tell, but reportedly Boeing employees working with the vehicle are enthusiastic about the idea of working to prep it for display. I hope it goes that way, and that it is displayed indoors rather than being left outside to crumble in a rocket garden. But we’ll see.
In the meantime, here’s a video of a successful Delta II launch — the launch of the Dawn spacecraft in 2007 from Cape Canaveral Air Station (Dawn has been in Ceres orbit for one month now):
Mind you, as fantastic as Delta II’s success rate is (better than Shuttle), it’s impossible to leave this thread without footage of its most spectacular failure. The first failure was an SRB separation failure that stranded the payload (Koreasat 1) in a suboptimal orbit. The second failure was . . . a bit more dramatic. An SRB ruptured 13 seconds into the flight, which was followed by an extremely good demonstration of why the launch area is always evacuated of all personnel before the flight. Notice chunks of flaming solid prop going splat as they hit, spattering flaming aluminum perchlorate all over the place. There was significant property damage, and several employee vehicles were destroyed. Imagine explaining that one to your insurance adjuster. 😉 Not a single person was hurt, however; the cost of the failure was entirely financial. The lost payload was GPS IIR-1.