Duo are veterans of Delta rocket program

United Launch Alliance employees Bill Sobczak and Stephanie Gartrell have worked on the Delta rocket program at Vandenberg Air Force Base since the 1980s. The Delta program is marking its 50th anniversary in 2010. //Mark Brown/Staff

As the Delta 2 program marks a half century of launches this year, two workers at Vandenberg Air Force Base have a long history of helping keep the rocket flying.

United Launch Alliance employees Bill Sobczak and Stephanie Gartrell have worked on the Delta rocket since the 1980s, a span when the site has seen some years pass without any liftoffs and others with missions occurring almost monthly.

Through the years, the rocket, dubbed a workhorse, has launched multiple NASA and Air Force spacecraft, several history-making commercial satellites and many craft for foreign nations.

“The second half, 25 years, of Delta started with a small family, grew into a larger family and those people that started out really changed a lot of things in the world, or at least helped as a launch team. We launched an awful lot of commercial, scientific and military payloads,” said Sobczak, an Orcutt resident.

An international satellite is the latest customer for what will be the 350th Delta rocket — the 40th for Gartrell and Sobczak — since the first flew from Florida in 1960.

Riding inside the nose cone will be an Italian earth-imaging satellite, called COSMO-SkyMed. Liftoff is planned for 7:20 p.m. Friday from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg.

But the story of the Delta program as it marks 50 years in 2010 is really about the team members who have made the missions happen, according to Sobczak, who was hired in 1986.

“I know there’s a lot of pride with all the launch team and what they’ve accomplished over the years,” said Sobczak, who was brought in to help finish out Delta 1, with a final mission slated for 1989.

When the pair started working for then-McDonnell Douglas in the 1980s, Delta’s days were numbered, as a presidential order moved satellites onto the space shuttle.

But the 1986 Challenger tragedy created new life for expendable rockets such as Delta because the previous policy was scrapped. The development of commercial satellites provided the exclamation point for revival of throwaway space boosters.

“That really rekindled the second half of 50 years for Delta,” Sobczak said. “Stephanie and I were fortunate to be in that second half, so to speak, of the 50 years of Delta.”

After the last Delta 1 launch in 1989, the pad sort of went quiet. Construction crews moved in to modify the facility for Delta 2 — a project that included raising the tower some 12 feet.

Rockets weren’t launching, but the team kept busy with other aerospace projects.

“Everybody was pretty creative in keeping the place open,” Gartrell said, adding that members of the small team had  “a can-do attitude.”

After six years without any Delta launches, Vandenberg’s first Delta 2 payload actually was a Canadian satellite that launched in 1995.

At the same time, after years of just launching military, NASA and other government satellites, the advent of private firm’s launching their own spacecraft meant new opportunities for Delta.

“It was a new rocket beginning out here. Commercial space was just starting up. Iridium was on the horizon,” Sobczak said, referring to the constellation of spacecraft for an innovative satellite phone system.

Between May 1997 and November 1998, 11 Delta rockets launched 55 satellites for the Iridium system.

“The Iridium campaign, that was exciting. Every 35 days we were launching,” she said, adding that no matter what time the rocket launched, she still got up to watch.

“The engineers and launch team loved it. When we’re launching, it’s what we do. We don’t like the gaps in between sometimes. We like to be busy. We’re the best in the world at what we do,” Sobczak said.

Since the first launch, Vandenberg has seen 38 Delta 2 rocket launches. While only a few Delta 2 rockets remain to be launched, a new family, the Delta 4, has taken root at another launch pad on South Base.

Gartrell, a Vandenberg Village resident who graduated from Cabrillo High School, joined in 1986 as a contractor but was hired permanently in 1987 as a business finance group member helping develop proposals and crafting cost estimates.

“I ended up really liking it because I can’t stand being bored,” Gartrell said. “This is the place to be when you don’t want to be bored.”

Today, she’s the material operations manager, responsible for shipping and receiving parts needed for a rocket launch and ground support equipment.

“It’s exciting, that’s for sure,” she said.

When hired by McDonnell Douglas, Sobczak was employed to be launch operations manager — “which I thought was funny because they weren’t launching any rockets. That was in between Delta times.”

Today, he’s  in charge of mission integration, working with the satellite crew to make sure their needs are met.

“It’s probably one of the most exciting jobs and gratifying jobs and that’s why I really love the job,” Sobczak said. “I get to deal with the scientists, the astrophysicists, the CEOs, all the way down to the technician levels for each one of the missions well in advance.”

After the launch and confirmation of spacecraft separation, his reward is seeing satellite team members happy that the craft is in orbit.

“That’s what makes it all worth it,” Sobczak said. “And the whole launch team feels that way.”

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