United Launch Alliance had problems during last launch of RD-180 engine in the first stage of their Atlas V rocket; they were not given to public during live broadcast on 23 March 2016. Luckily for ULA, Centaur upper stage gave its best and Cygnus is on its way to International Space Station.
During live broadcast from mission OA-6 contracted for Orbital ATK (spacecraft)/ULA (launch service, subcontractor) under CRS NASA program, nothing indicated that something is going not correct. Every word of commentary given by United Launch Alliance employee was not suggesting any problems. But in fact something was going not really according the flight schedule. Telemetry data from live broadcast showed that Centaur upper stage was using its RL10 engine not for scheduled 18’09” but for 19’20”. It was not commented in any way during live broadcast. Even on press conference on 23 March 2016, just after launch, whole incident was not confirmed – it was only suggested that longer time of RL10 burn was routine. According to Spacenews.com, Vern Thorp (ULA’s program manager for NASA missions) claimed that:
“The pre-launch predictions of exactly when the events are going to occur are based on a preliminary trajectory. Typically it’s been developed a few weeks before the launch… It’s not unusual for things to vary a little bit based on the actual conditions of the launch.”
But live broadcast left no doubts. RD-180 engine in first stage stopped working 5 seconds earlier at T+4’10” instead planned T+4’10”. It was hard to spot during live broadcast but after replay recording from NASA Television it became clear – engine was shut down definitely not in correct moment. Due this fact, Centaur RL10 engine was working longer to inject Cygnus into correct orbit. Centaur reentered correctly; debris which usually felt into impact zone in Pacific Ocean near South Australia splashed slightly more on East, but still on unsettled regions.
It is interesting why United Launch Alliance did not confirm during press conference that Atlas V had problems. Of course during live broadcast there was simply no time to create appropriate statement; during press conference it became clear that denial does not bring good consequences. Surely it will rather not help to build image of ULA as responsible Company with clear rules in information policy. In this matter SpaceX is still example of “how to do it right”. For ULA it is another setback in Public Relations after statements declared by former Brett Tobey, vice president of engineering in ULA, on recent competition between ULA and SpaceX for launch services for GPS III. His comments caused opening probe by U.S. Defense Department to check if every previous contracts for ULA were awarded in accordance with all the internal regulations; problems with RD-180 and method and approach of ULA for their own mistakes it does not give much hope for calm Easter for ULA…
On picture above You can see Centaur upper stage.