CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla., Feb. 3, 2005 - When an Atlas III launch vehicle successfully placed a national security payload into orbit early this morning, it set an industry record of 75 consecutive successful missions for the Atlas vehicle.
The string dates back to mid-1993, and includes the entire Atlas II and Atlas III series of vehicles as well as Atlas V vehicles launched to date. The Atlas vehicles are built by Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) and marketed worldwide by International Launch Services (ILS).
"This is an outstanding achievement, " said ILS President Mark Albrecht. "It's a testament to the dedication and discipline of the entire Atlas team, who put quality and Mission Success foremost as our priorities. We're especially pleased to accomplish this historic launch together with our Air Force and Office of Space Launch partners."
The Atlas III vehicle, designated AC-206, lifted off from Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 36B at 2:41 a.m. EST with a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. The payload was released into orbit about 79 minutes later. Details of the payload and mission, known as NROL-23, are classified. This mission commenced only about five hours after another ILS vehicle, a Russian Proton rocket, lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with a commercial communications satellite.
Today's Cape Canaveral launch retires the Atlas III model after six flights, and was the final Atlas mission from Launch Complex 36. The final Atlas II vehicle flew from Pad 36A last Aug. 31, also with an NRO payload. Since 1962, 145 Atlas vehicles have been launched from Complex 36 - 69 from Pad A and 76 from Pad B. Operations were run from a "blockhouse" that dates back to the 1960s, but with electronic systems that were upgraded along with the rockets. Lockheed Martin will be shutting down all operations at Complex 36 over the next several months and return the facilities to Air Force control.
"Some may see this as the end of an era, but the best tribute we can make to the Atlas heritage is to continue the excellent work of this program," Albrecht said.
"The Atlas program has always been about evolution. This has been a model program in how to develop a successful launch vehicle. The Atlas II family has a fantastic history. Atlas III was developed to bridge the technical and operational differences between Atlas IIAS and Atlas V. In reality, today 's mission is the 10th successful launch of the next-generation Atlas family of Atlas III and Atlas V, which combine the best - RD-180 propulsion with the Centaur upper stage. Now the transition to Atlas V is complete and the only remaining development will focus on requirements unique to our U.S. government customers," Albrecht said.
"An Atlas is an Atlas, and that defines reliability," Albrecht continued. " Our customers and the insurance community apparently agree - we have the best insurance rates in the industry, and we can boast customers from commercial, defense and civil space organizations around the world."
ILS is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Russian rocket builder Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center. ILS markets and manages the missions on the Atlas and Proton vehicles. ILS was formed in 1995, and is based in McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
With a remarkable launch rate of 72 missions since 2000, the Atlas and Proton launch vehicles have consistently demonstrated the reliability and flexibility that have made them the preferred choice among satellite operators worldwide. Since the beginning of 2003, ILS has signed more new commercial contracts than all of its competitors combined.