8:09 PM EST NROL-44 departs atop a Delta IV Heavy from LC-37 at Canaveral Space Force Station
After eight scheduled launch dates listed officially by ULA (United Launch Alliance) one of the few Delta IV Heavy rockets remaining has lifted off the pad and sent it’s top secret payload into orbit. Excitingly this is also the first launch of a rocket on the newly named Canaveral Space Force Station. Previously the Canaveral Air Force Station it’s name was officially changed just one day prior to launch in a ceremony lead by Vice President, Mike Pence.
Arriving in November of 2019 the core boosters of the Delta IV Heavy rocket have been at the Cape for over a year now as the patiently waited to get to work. And work they did, As all three RS-68A engines ignited with over two million pounds of thrust the seventy-two meter rocket slowly leapt off the pad, seemingly stopping to get it’s picture taken before quickly building speed and flying heavenward.
Originally on the launch schedule for June of 2020, that was moved shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic began. Then the company announced August 27th would be the mission time. Though it did not seem so. When the countdown reached the point to begin fueling the rocket, ULA stood down from that night’s attempt. With two seconds left on the countdown clock thousands of viewers watched with jaws dropped as the rocket appeared to light itself on fire before suddenly extinguishing. Hot fire abort it was called. A support sensor read something it didn’t like and shut down the engines to prevent a catastrophe from taking place. Tory Bruno, ULA CEO stated on his Twitter account “a high volumetric flow rate pressure regulator [that] did not open” as the cause of the abort. That issue fixed, we had a few more scrubs before the next abort. Weather prevented the MST (Mobile Service Tower) from being retracted caused two of them, a swing arm retraction issue causing yet another. We then were told September 30th would be the date, and as the night continued on things looked promising for the “Majestic” Delta IV Heavy to finally get off the ground. At T-minus seven seconds the rocket started to ignite it’s engines once more but was instantaneously shut down. A sensor lead to the computer misreading that a valve in one of the engines had not moved to flight position. The valve was moved, the sensor was just faulty, but more sensors found more issues with the swing arm, and some days later we were given two dates in October to look forward to seeing this beauty launch. Though every time things got closer to those dates ULA would take them away. We then heard nothing for almost two months, until December 5th when ULA at last announced that they would again attempt to launch the NROL-44 payload on the 10th of December. The night was literally perfect as the 45th Space Wing forecast moved from 90% GO, to a full 100% Go for launch.
Little is known about the actual payload of this launch. NROL-44 is owned and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office or the NRO. A U.S. government agency responsible for operating America’s arsenal of spy satellites. Even with the top secret nature of the payload, all launch providers must provide NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) and NOTMARs (Notices to Mariners). These are windows of time along with a certain amount of space around the launch site that must be restricted during those times to keep everyone safe. With the hazard area going almost directly East over the Atlantic Ocean we can put together that the satellite is most likely going into a Geostationary orbit. This is the 8th Delta IV Heavy launch for the NRO, and the 12th overall launch of the rocket since it’s debut in 2004. It is also the 6th launch for ULA this year, marking one launch more than in 2019. ULA has a 100% success rate, and Tory Bruno again confirmed mission success in his usual fashion, tweeting out a number. The number “142” meaning 142 successful missions for the company.
When the payload fairings separated the broadcast was put in a black out. Normal for a NRO mission to keep prying eyes from getting any ideas of what they are really sending up. With that orbit in mind the payload will likely depart from the second stage six to seven hours after initially lifting off. from here on out we just have to assume all is going accordingly.