9:00 AM Est December 19th, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center
With two dragons currently docked at the ISS (International Space Station) SpaceX is sending up an ape to complete the menagerie. Though over the years there has been many types of animals actually launched into orbit, most currently some mice aboard the CRS-21 launch, todays launch doesn’t actually include an ape. It’s just the official mission badge of the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office). “Strength Through Peace” the official mission statement, and possible clues as to what exactly the top secret payload may be. The NRO enjoys having some fun with their mission logos, recently with NROL-101 the theme was that of Lord of The Rings, and had the statement written in Elvish along the fairing. The intelligence agency is usually closed lipped about any information regarding what their payloads are.
“The NRO has been the nation’s eyes and ears in space for almost six decades–developing, launching and operating sophisticated overhead reconnaissance systems to meet the national security needs of the nation,” the NRO stated. A tweet from the agency on Dec. 14th had this to say about the design, “Gorillas are peaceful animals but can be fierce when necessary. Like the gorilla, our NROL-108 mission is constantly vigilant and ready to defend its own, demonstrating NRO’s commitment to protecting U.S. warfighters, interests, and allies.”
Early morning Thursday December 17th, the forecast from the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted 70% favorable weather conditions during the three hour window. A slight improvement from the 60% favorable conditions Wednesday night gave. A concern being a strong high pressure system moving East from Southern Texas bringing cooler, more dry air to the Space Coast. The violations primarily could be liftoff winds and the thick cloud layer rule. With rain on the pad for several hours Wednesday afternoon and into the evening clouds surrounded the entire vicinity of the launch pad as the window opened. As time grew nearer to the start of propellant load for SpaceX the company announced they would be pushing back T-0 time to 9:45 AM Est in hopes weather conditions would improve. The countdown then proceeded smoothly all the way until the one minutes fifty three second mark when a hold was suddenly announced.
From the press site at Kennedy Space Center, a mere three miles from the pad onlookers could barely make out the rocket. Visibility had decreased significantly as more haze and fog surrounded the area. This wasn’t the cause for holding the countdown as the weather was still a GO for launch. SpaceX soon announced a sensor reading in the second stage was the cause for the hold. With plenty of time left in the window to launch NROL-108 the teams on the pad moved to resolve the issue in the time needed, but was not to be so for that attempt. They then announced the plan was the next launch attempt would be December 18th with the launch window once again starting at 9:00 AM Est. Around midnight heading into the 18th though SpaceX tweeted out that additional check outs would be taking place and the new launch date was Saturday, Dec. 19th.
Around 2:00AM Est the Falcon 9 rocket was reported to have returned to the vertical position on LC-39A. As the sun rose over Cape Canaveral the rocket was clearly seen vertically on the pad. A great indication that things were progressing towards a launch. Shortly after 8:00 PM Est it was announced that the rocket was GO for propellant load. Forty-five minutes later at exactly 9:00 AM Est the Falcon 9 rocket ignited all nine of it’s 1D merlin engines under a beautiful Florida morning and the mission was underway. About nine minutes later a reverberating sonic boom was heard as the first stage booster touched down on LZ-1, on Canaveral Space Force base just a few miles south of the launch site.
In a record setting year from SpaceX this launch marked the 26th Falcon 9 rocket from Florida during 2020 and the 102nd flight ever. It also became the 70th overall landing of a Falcon 9 first stage booster, with twenty of those landings being RTLS (Return To Landing Site) on LZ-1 which is just nine miles south of the launch pad. Aa rare treat these days as most of the boosters come down on one of two autonomous drones ships many miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. With the landing so close people in the surrounding areas of Cape Canaveral heard the sonic booms that accompany the booster, booming just a second or so before it visually touches down. Booster 1059 previously supported the CRS-19,20 cargo resupply missions, followed by a Starlink launch and most recently the SOACOM-1B mission which also was an RTLS mission and the first Southern trajectory, or Polar launch from the Cape since the 1960’s.
Even with the scrub of NROL-108 on Thursday with booster 1059 SpaceX displayed just how busy this year has been for them. Booster 1051 returned to Port Canaveral just after the NROL-108 mission would have taken place. Last Sunday Dec. 13th the company launched the SXM-7 mission, a satellite for Sirius XM the broadcasting conglomerate. Booster 1051 which flew that mission became the second SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage to successfully launch and land seven times. As with the last launch of astronauts to the ISS (International Space Station) this returning booster had a noticeable lean to it and was also hanging on the edge of the drone ship. If you watched the live feed from the mission you’d have seen both these boosters landed almost dead center of the drone ship. It is believed that rough sea conditions caused them to slid to the edge before workers could get the Octograbber secured to hold them in place. When the mission takes place all crew from the drone ship and tug boat are taken via a support ship several miles away to wait and ensure that safety is a top concern.