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MAVEN will launch on an Atlas V launch vehicle

December 15, 2010
Atlas V launch site

The Atlas V launch site can be viewed in this photo from the top of the Vertical Integration Facility. Once the rocket is fully assembled on the mobile launch pad, the pad is lifted up, carried out to the launch site, and set in place. (Courtesy ULA)

MAVEN will be launched on an Atlas V-401 launch vehicle. The name Atlas V describes the basic rocket itself. There have been more than twenty launches of the Atlas V, and all but one were fully successful. The “401” means that we’re using the 4-m fairing (that encloses the spacecraft during launch), there are 0 “strap-on” solid rocket boosters, and the second-stage Centaur vehicle has one rocket engine. The MAVEN spacecraft team had a chance to see some of the Atlas launch facilities when we were at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida last week for a retreat to discuss the next stage of the project.

We saw the launch control room for the Atlas V, the launch vehicle horizontal processing facility (where they have the rockets on their side for processing and testing once they arrive there), the vertical integration facility (where they stack and mate the rocket, upper stage, and spacecraft vertically, in their launch configuration, before it goes to the pad), and the launch pad.

The launch is the part of the mission over which the MAVEN spacecraft team has the least control. But that may be a good thing — roughly 1 in 30 launches are not fully successful, and I’m glad we can have the professionals who are experts at it focus on that part of the mission. Seeing the facilities and meeting some of the people involved helps make me more comfortable with the launch. The launch team understands what it takes to launch a rocket, and they are absolute professionals in ensuring that everything possible is done to succeed. I’m thrilled that we have the NASA Launch Services Program and the Atlas folks on the MAVEN team!

I’ll also admit that it’s a tremendous thrill to be able to see these facilities up close, and to see some of the behind-the-scenes details that go into making a successful launch. I’m not so jaded in this business that I don’t get a real kick out of it!

But it’s also a bit surreal going down to Cocoa Beach in Florida, which is the town closest to the launch facilities. Looking in one direction from the highway, you can see the launch towers and the rockets at Cape Canaveral. Looking the other way, you see Port Canaveral and the line-up of cruise ships waiting for their next round of passengers to cruise the Caribbean. I’ve taken cruises, and they’re a lot of fun. But the voyage that I’m waiting for now will depart from the other direction, and launches in a little under three years!

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