The second of the Mars Rovers made it’s launch by the skin of its teeth last night. Opportunity’s launch originally was targeted for June 28, but the flight was delayed at the last minute because of range safety issues and high-altitude winds. During turnaround operations, technicians discovered debonded insulation on the first stage of the Delta 2. The insulation was installed to keep the skin of the rocket cool during its faster-than-normal climb out of the lower atmosphere.
In the end, it took a week to correct the problem. Launch was delayed an additional day, from Sunday to Monday, because of work to replace a battery in the rocket’s self-destruct system. As if that wasn’t enough, the countdown ticked down to within seconds of liftoff tonight when problems with a sluggish first stage fill-and-drain valve forced yet another delay. But this time around, the problem was corrected in time to make a second instantaneous launch window at 11:18 p.m.
NASA only had until July 15 to get Opportunity off the ground before standing down for four years while Earth and Mars returned to favorable launch positions. NASA managers no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when the Delta 2 finally roared to life this evening, 12 minutes before Mars rose on the eastern horizon.