RocketStars: Leading the engineering team for Delta IV Heavy

RocketStars: Leading the engineering team for Delta IV Heavy

Once a pastry chef and now a respected rocket scientist, Steen Vecchi is the vehicle systems engineer for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy that will perform another critical mission for U.S. national security on June 21.

Launch of the NROL-68 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Space Force’s Space Systems Command will occur from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Follow the countdown in our status blog and watch a live webcast on the ULA website. 

Throughout the evening and overnight launch countdown, Vecchi will be at the helm of the engineering support area inside the Delta Operations Center. That is where you will find the certified engineers and experts on all the rocket’s elements — engines, avionics, flight design and so much more.

The team carefully monitors the telemetry streaming back from the Delta IV Heavy and its pad systems as the rocket is powered up, loaded with cryogenic propellants and prepared for launch. If any of the data points look unexpected or unusual, Vecchi will gather the right people to assess whether there is a problem, and if so, how to resolve it.

Once everything is in readiness, the clocks tick down the final seconds and the hydrogen-fueled main engines ignite to lift the triple-barreled rocket into the sky.

“Being in the Delta Operations Center, watching through the windows as a Delta IV Heavy takes off, you see the windows shake and think they are going to break,” Vecchi said. “How can you not get addicted to launches when your first launch was a Delta IV Heavy?”

Vecchi started his Delta career in the summer of 2007 in the test and evaluation group in Huntington Beach, California, initially as a Boeing employee before joining ULA. The first launch he supported was the Delta IV Heavy carrying the DSP-23 missile warning satellite to geosynchronous orbit in November 2007.

“I spent a few years in the test and evaluation group working Delta IV requirements before moving into the chief engineer’s group as the Delta IV vehicle systems support engineer (VSSE). I was the VSSE until I moved into the Delta IV vehicle systems engineer (VSE) role a couple of months before the NROL-71 launch in 2019,” Vecchi said.

VSE is a leadership position with technical oversight of all engineering products related to the launch site vehicle processing requirements and design center launch support.

“Basically, I lead a team of engineers and we make sure the vehicle and ground systems are ready for launch. Then during countdown we support our launch operations teammates during any investigations to get us to launch,” Vecchi said.

Vecchi also serves as the VSE during launches of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rockets for the Artemis program. ICPS is derived from the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage of the Delta IV Heavy and serves as the SLS upper stage.

“Being ICPS VSE is pretty much the same as Delta IV, I just don’t have to worry about the ground systems or the first stage,” Vecchi said.

The Colorado native was a pastry chef for 10 years before going back to school to get his engineering degree. He attended the Colorado State University and majored in engineering sciences. 

“When I talk to folks not in our industry, heck even in our industry, I usually just tell them I launch rockets. That usually gets a pretty good conversation going,” Vecchi said 

When not at the launch site, Vecchi works at ULA headquarters in Denver. He lives near a golf course, which has its obvious perks. 

“I know it is cliché, but it is the people, the professionalism and camaraderie of the teams I work with makes it worth coming to work every day,” Vecchi said.  

“But for the shear adrenaline rush it is the last four minutes of a countdown, even after all these years being on console, I still get that nervous feeling counting down to liftoff.”


Learn more about the Delta IV Heavy NROL-68 launch

See more photos in our NROL-68 album