ULA’s Delta 4 prepares for final West Coast launch as Vandenberg officials search for new tenants

After the completion of the NROL-91 mission, ULA will begin to leave SLC-6 and consolidate operations on SLC-3

WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 heavy rocket is scheduled to launch mission by the National Intelligence Agency on September 24 from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.

This will be the last Delta 4 launch from the West Coast. ULA is contracted to launch two more Delta 4 Heavy missions in 2023 and 2024, but they will fly from Cape Canaveral, Florida, after which the vehicle will be retired.

The launch of NROL-91 marks the end of an era, Col. Chad Davis, director of the NRO’s Space Launch Office, told reporters Sept. 22.

After the completion of the NROL-91 mission, ULA plans to begin vacating the site, known as Space Launch Complex-6. Future company car, Vulcan Centaur, will be launched from Vandenberg Space Launch Complex-3, from which ULA currently launches its Atlas 5 rocket.

Speaking to reporters, Col. Brian Titus, vice commander of Space Launch Delta 30 at Vandenberg, said site officials are in active discussions with launch companies to try to find a new tenant for SLC-6.

Space Launch Delta 30 is the Space Force unit that operates the Vandenberg Proving Ground.

“I’m pretty sure it will be used,” Titus said of SLC-6. He declined to name potential tenants.

Most launches at Vandenberg today are carried out by SpaceX, which leases Space Launch Complex-4 for launches and acceleration landings.

Titus noted the storied past of the SLC-6. Originally built in the 1960s to launch the Air Force’s manned orbital laboratory, which never flew, it was repurposed in the 1980s as a dedicated launch and landing site for military space shuttle missions. After the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, the Air Force preserved the site, never launching a shuttle to the West Coast. It restored the site in the 1990s for several Lockheed Martin Athena launches and eventually turned it over to the Delta 4 program. Runway SLC-6 was used to land the Air Force’s X-37B reusable space plane.

Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman have reportedly considered working out an agreement with ULA to use SLC-6 to launch national security missions if they were selected for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract. But both were rejected ULA and SpaceX in August 2020.

The site “had many lives,” Titus said. “I think everyone at Vandenberg has a warm place in their hearts for this place, and we’re going to make sure it continues to be used, but we’re not sure exactly how,” he added. “There are many other startup service providers that could benefit from this location. There is a lot of infrastructure there.”

Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs, said the company is preparing for the final West Coast launch of Atlas 5 from SLC-3, scheduled for Nov. 1. It will be a polar-orbiting meteorological satellite Joint Polar Satellite System 2, developed by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Upon completion of this mission, SLC-3 will be equipped with new equipment in preparation for Vulcan, which is projected to begin flight in 2023.

He said ULA doesn’t see a need to keep two launch sites on the West Coast. “From a business perspective, it made sense for us to use SLC-3 because there was a lot in common between the Atlas and Vulcan systems.” ULA’s Delta 4 prepares for final West Coast launch as Vandenberg officials search for new tenants

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