Delta II was an expendable launch system, originally designed and built by McDonnell Douglas. Delta II was part of the Delta rocket family and entered service in 1989. Delta II vehicles included the Delta 6000, and the two later Delta 7000 variants ("Light" and "Heavy"). The rocket flew its final mission ICESat-2 on 15 September 2018, earning the launch vehicle a streak of 100 successful missions in a row, with the last failure being GPS IIR-1 in 1997.
|Manufacturer||United Launch Alliance|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Cost per launch||US$51 million in 1987 (7920-10 model)  US$137 million in 2018 before retirement |
|Height||38.9 m (128 ft)|
|Diameter||2.44 m (8 ft 0 in)|
|Mass||152,000–286,000 kg (335,000–631,000 lb)|
|Payload to low Earth orbit|
|Mass||2,800–6,140 kg (6,170–13,540 lb)|
|Payload to geostationary transfer orbit|
|Mass||1,140–2,190 kg (2,510–4,830 lb)|
|Payload to heliocentric orbit|
|Mass||806–1,519 kg (1,777–3,349 lb)|
|Launch sites||Cape Canaveral, SLC-17|
Vandenberg Air Force Base, SLC-2W
Delta 6000: 17
Delta 7000: 132
Delta 7000H: 6
Delta 6000: 17
Delta 7000: 130
Delta 7000H: 6
|Failure(s)||1 (Delta 7000)|
|Partial failure(s)||1 (Delta 7000)|
|Boosters (6000 Series) – Castor 4A|
|Maximum thrust||478 kN (107,000 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||266 s (2.61 km/s)|
|Burn time||56 seconds|
|Boosters (7000 Series) – GEM 40|
|No. boosters||3, 4, or 9|
|Maximum thrust||492.9 kN (110,800 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||274 s (2.69 km/s)|
|Burn time||64 seconds|
|Boosters (7000 Heavy) – GEM 46|
|Maximum thrust||628.3 kN (141,200 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||278 s (2.73 km/s)|
|Burn time||76 seconds or 178.03 seconds after lift off|
|First stage – Thor/Delta XLT(-C)|
|Powered by||1 RS-27 (6000 series) or RS-27A (7000 series) |
|Maximum thrust||1,054 kN (237,000 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||302 s (2.96 km/s)|
|Burn time||260.5 seconds|
|Propellant||RP-1 / LOX|
|Second stage – Delta K|
|Powered by||1 AJ10-118K|
|Maximum thrust||43.6 kN (9,800 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||319 s (3.13 km/s)|
|Burn time||431 seconds|
|Propellant||N2O4 / Aerozine 50|
|Third stage – PAM-D (optional)|
|Powered by||Star 48B|
|Maximum thrust||66 kN (15,000 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||286 s (2.80 km/s)|
|Burn time||87 seconds|
In the early 1980s, all United States expendable launch vehicles were planned to be phased out in favor of the Space Shuttle, which would be responsible for all government and commercial launches. Production of Delta, Atlas-Centaur, and Titan 34D had ended. The Challenger disaster of 1986 and the subsequent halt of Shuttle operations changed this policy, and President Ronald Reagan announced in December 1986 that the Space Shuttle would no longer launch commercial payloads, and NASA would seek to purchase launches on expendable vehicles for missions that did not require crew or Shuttle support.
McDonnell Douglas, at that time the manufacturer of the Delta family, signed a contract with the U.S. Air Force in 1987 to provide seven Delta II. These were intended to launch a series of Global Positioning System (GPS) Block II satellites, which had previously been manifested for the Space Shuttle. The Air Force exercised additional contract options in 1988, expanding this order to 20 vehicles, and NASA purchased its first Delta II in 1990 for the launch of three Earth-observing satellites. The first Delta II launch occurred on 14 February 1989, with a Delta 6925 boosting the first GPS Block II satellite (USA-35) from Launch Complex 17A (SLC-17A) at Cape Canaveral into a 20,000 km (12,000 mi) high medium Earth orbit.
The first Delta II 7000-series flew on November 26, 1990, replacing the RS-27 engine of the 6000-series with the more powerful RS-27A engine. Additionally, the steel-cased Castor 4A solid boosters of the 6000 series were replaced with the composite-cased GEM-40. All further Delta II launches except three were of this upgraded configuration, and the 6000-series was retired in 1992 with the last launch being on July 24.
McDonnell Douglas began Delta III development in the mid-1990s as increasing satellite mass required more powerful launch vehicles. Delta III, with its liquid hydrogen second stage and more powerful GEM-46 boosters, could bring twice as much mass as Delta II to geostationary transfer orbit, but a string of two failures and one partial failure, along with the development of the much more powerful Delta IV, led to the cancellation of the Delta III program. The upgraded boosters would still find use on the Delta II, leading to the Delta II Heavy.
On 28 March 2003, the Air Force Space Command began the process of deactivating the Delta II launch facilities and infrastructure at Cape Canaveral once the last of the second-generation GPS satellites were launched. However, in 2008, it instead announced that it would transfer all the Delta II facilities and infrastructure to NASA to support the launch of the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) in 2011.
The last GPS launch aboard a Delta II, and the final launch from SLC-17A at Cape Canaveral was in 2009. The GRAIL Launch in 2011 marked the last Delta II Heavy launch and the last from Florida. The final five launches would all be from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
On 16 July 2012, NASA selected the Delta II to support the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2), Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1 - NOAA-20) missions. This marked the final purchase of Delta II. OCO-2 was launched on 2 July 2014, Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) was launched on 31 January 2015, and JPSS-1 was launched on 18 November 2017. All three of these launches were placed into orbit from SLC-2 at Vandenberg.
The Delta II family launched 155 times. Its only unsuccessful launches were Koreasat 1 in 1995, and GPS IIR-1 in 1997. The Koreasat 1 launch was a partial failure caused by one booster not separating from the first stage, which resulted in the satellite being placed in a lower than intended orbit. By using reserve fuel, it was able to achieve its proper geosynchronous orbit and operated for 10 years. The GPS IIR-1 was a total loss as the Delta II exploded 13 seconds after launch. The explosion occurred when a damaged solid rocket booster casing ruptured and triggered the vehicle's flight termination system. No one was injured, and the launch pad itself was not seriously impacted, though several cars were destroyed and a few buildings were damaged.
In 2007, Delta II completed its 75th consecutive successful launch, surpassing the 74 consecutive successful launches of the Ariane 4. With the launch of ICESat-2 in 2018, Delta II reached 100 consecutive successful launches.
While all completed Delta II rockets have launched, many flight-qualified spare parts remain. These spare parts were assembled to create a nearly-complete Delta II, for exhibition in its 7420-3 configuration. The rocket is displayed vertically at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, and bears its popular "shark teeth" livery on its fairing, which was painted on past Delta II rockets for the GPS launches.
The first stage of the Delta II was propelled by a Rocketdyne RS-27 main engine burning RP-1 and liquid oxygen. This stage was technically referred to as the "Extra-Extended Long Tank Thor", a derivative of the Thor ballistic missile  as were all Delta rockets until the Delta IV. The RS-27 used on the 6000-series Delta II produced 915 kN (206,000 lbf), while the upgraded RS-27A used by the 7000-series produced 1,054 kN (237,000 lbf). The stage was 26 meters (85 ft) long and 2.4 meters (7.9 ft) wide, weighted over 100 tonnes (220,000 lb) when fueled, and burned for 260 seconds. In addition, two LR101-NA-11 vernier engines provided guidance for the first stage.
For additional thrust during launch, the Delta II used solid boosters. For the 6000-series, Delta II used Castor 4A boosters, while the 7000-series used Graphite-Epoxy Motors manufactured by ATK. The vehicle could be flown with three, four, or, most commonly, nine boosters. When three or four boosters were used, all ignited on the ground at launch, while models that used nine boosters would ignite six on the ground, then the remaining three in flight after the burnout and jettison of the first six.
The second stage of Delta II was the Delta-K, powered by a restartable Aerojet AJ10-118K engine burning hypergolic Aerozine-50 and N2O4. These propellants are highly toxic and corrosive, and once loaded the launch had to occur within approximately 37 days or the stage would have to be refurbished or replaced. This stage also contained a combined inertial platform and guidance system that controlled all flight events. The Delta-K stage was 6 meters (20 ft) long and 2.4 meters (7.9 ft) wide, containing up to 6 tonnes (13,000 lb) of propellant, and burned for up to 430 seconds.
For low Earth orbit, Delta II was not equipped with a third stage. Payloads bound for higher energy orbits such as GTO or to reach Earth escape velocity for trans-Mars injection or other destinations beyond Earth used a solid propellant third stage. This stage was spin-stabilized and depended on the second stage for proper orientation prior to stage separation, but was sometimes equipped with a nutation control system to maintain proper spin axis. It also included a yo-weight system to induce tumbling in the third stage after payload separation to prevent recontact, or a yo-yo de-spin mechanism to slow the rotation before payload release.
The Delta II family used a four-digit system to generate its technical names:
For example, a Delta 7925H-10L used an RS-27A, nine GEM-46 boosters, a PAM third stage, and a lengthened 10 ft (3.0 m) diameter fairing. A Delta 6320–9.5 is a two-stage vehicle with an RS-27 first stage engine, three Castor 4A boosters, a 9.5 ft (2.9 m) diameter fairing, and no third stage.
In 2008, ULA indicated that it had "around half a dozen" unsold Delta II rockets on hand, but ULA CEO Tory Bruno stated in October 2017 that there are no complete, unbooked Delta II rockets left in the ULA inventory; and though there are leftover Delta II parts, there are not enough to build another launch vehicle. The remaining pieces will be used to create a museum piece for the Smithsonian.
The only person on record ever hit by space debris was hit by a piece of a Delta II rocket. Lottie Williams was exercising in a park in Tulsa on 22 January 1997 when she was hit in the shoulder by a 15-centimeter (6 in) piece of blackened metallic material. U.S. Space Command confirmed that a used Delta II rocket from the April 1996 launch of the Midcourse Space Experiment had crashed into the atmosphere 30 minutes earlier. The object tapped her on the shoulder and fell off harmlessly onto the ground. Williams collected the item and NASA tests later showed that the fragment was consistent with the materials of the rocket, and Nicholas Johnson, the agency's chief scientist for orbital debris, believes that she was indeed hit by a piece of the rocket.
Media related to Delta II at Wikimedia Commons