Majestic ride to space for classified satellite after repeated delays
As hundreds of people crowded into viewing spots and pulled over on Lompoc Valley roadsides, a gargantuan Delta 4-Heavy rocket soared through the blue skies above Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday morning, ferrying a top-secret national security satellite into space.
Measuring a prodigious 233-feet-tall, the United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy is the largest booster to lift off from the West Coast ? and it did so with gusto at 11:10 a.m., more than a month after originally planned.
With Space Launch Complex-6 tucked into a valley on Vandenberg’s southern coastline, the initial moments of liftoff were out of view for most observers. But once the rocket cleared the area’s hills during its ascent, the Delta 4-Heavy’s photogenic “triple body” was a stunningly visual moment, even for residents accustomed to regular Vandenberg launches.
Propelled by the three common booster cores mounted together, the rocket reached supersonic speed just more than a minute after liftoff, emitting the sound of 2 million pounds of thrust. In a mind-boggling statistic provided by ULA, that amount of thrust is equivalent to the power generated by 33 Hoover Dams.
Social media was flooded with images of the rocket and its fluffy white contrail. Reports to Vandenberg’s Facebook page indicated the ascent was seen from at least San Jose to the north and Tehachapi to the south.
The rocket carried a payload nicknamed “NROL-71” for the National Reconnaissance Office. Initially planned for an early evening liftoff on Dec. 7, the launch was delayed five times by various mechanical and weather problems.
“We are proud to launch this critical payload in support of our nation’s national security mission,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs, in a statement. “As the nation’s premiere launch provider, the teams have worked diligently to ensure continued mission success, delivering our customer’s payloads to the precise orbits requested.”
Saturday’s dazzling display was only the third Delta 4-Heavy to launch from Vandenberg ? the previous missions took place in 2013 and 2011. It also launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
“Congratulations to the 30th Space Wing, United Launch Alliance and the National Reconnaissance Office for a successful mission,” said Col. Bob Reeves, 30th Space Wing vice commander and space launch commander for the flight. “The entire team worked diligently to ensure mission assurance, public safety, and mission success on the Western Range.”
Taking off from the pad once destined for the West Coast space shuttle, the Delta 4-Heavy can carry a satellite weighing as much as 28,650 pounds into an orbit 22,300 miles above Earth.
Details about Saturday’s payload remain classified. The NRO does not disclose the size of its satellite and won’t confirm its payload reached its intended orbit, only that the payload fairing had separated. It is generally believed by industry observers that the satellite cost more than $2 billion and that it is designed to provide high-resolution reconnaissance imagery.
The National Reconnaissance Office ? itself once so secret that its mere existence was not even acknowledged ? is a joint effort of the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. It is the agency responsible for developing, launching and operating the nation’s classified signals, imagery and communication satellites.
“We are very happy to have achieved another successful launch in support of our country’s national security mission,” said Col. Matthew Skeen, director of the NRO’s Office of Space Launch. “This launch, like the ones that have come before, represents years of hard work and dedication from our government and industry team members and serves as a true testament to the meaning of teamwork.”
The mission patch for NROL-71 depicted an eagle as the “symbol of both freedom and the nation, which provides a fitting mascot to represent NRO’s support to our nation’s warfighter,” according to the NRO.
The eagle wears a dogtag with the initials “JLC,” in honor of Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, a Union commander who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism at the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, when he held the Union Army’s southern flank at Little Round Top against repeated assaults by Confederate forces.
Col. Chamberlain’s “heroism, leadership, and commitment to ‘service before self’ exemplify the ethos of the American service member,” NRO officials noted.
Indications from space launch observers predict the next Delta 4-Heavy launch from Vandenberg will occur in 2020.