April 26th, 2021 4:47 PM Edt, atop a Delta IV Heavy from Vandenburg Air Force Base
ULA launched one of their final Delta IV Heavy rockets today for the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) from Vandenburg Air Force Station. Our missions designation is NROL Launch 82, or NROL-82 for short. The mission was critical for national security, yet if the payload is for the military, or scientific purposes, we can not say. The NRO only had this to say about their payload for the mission, “NROL-82 supports NRO’s overall national security mission to provide intelligence data to the United State’s senior policy makers, the intelligence community and Department of Defense. Shrouded in secrecy per the usual NRO launches there are not many other public details going around as to what was launched this afternoon. We do know however that the payload was extremely large as the Delta IV Heavy is the most powerful Rocket ULA has to offer at this time and is capable of sending larger payloads into geostationary orbits.
The National Reconnaissance Office usually gives some hints as to what the mission will pertain to in their mission patch. This patch was designed to commemorate the many heroic acts and sacrifices made in part to protect our way of life. Adorned with an eagle, America’s symbol of freedom, it wears the traditional flight gear of a WWII fighter pilot. In this case it is based specifically from Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and in the background you will see a F4U Corsair which Boyington flew during the second great war. Three stars also adorn the patch in honor to those who have served, those who will serve, and those who are still serving to preserve America’s way of life. On the bottom of the patch the Latin phrase “TACITAE LIBERTATIS CUSTODEMQUE” is written tying the whole design together. Silent Guardians of Freedom is the meaning behind the words and again ties back to those who protected the American way.
Today’s mission is the 143rd for ULA (United Launch Alliance) and the 90th in support of U.S. national security, and the 31st mission for the NRO. It also makes the 386th launch of a Delta class rocket since 1960 and the 13th Delta IV Heavy launch. Their Delta IV Heavy rocket serves some of the nation’s highest priority missions for the U.S. Space Force, NRO, and other space programs, like when it launched NASA’s Orion capsule on its first orbital test flight.
Weather was forecasted for a 30% GO today, yet the weather system held and operations were able to proceed as planned. A few hours before launch fueling began as systems started to load the 470,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the propellant needed for the RS-68A engines of the three core boosters to bring the full 2.1 millions pounds of thrust that the Delta IV Heavy is capable of achieving. After that the cryogenic second stage was filled with 10,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen. At that point operations were just two hours away from launch and all systems remained green or GO for launch. One hour from launch ULA announced that vehicle was fueled and the eight cryogenic tanks were being conditioned for launch of NROL-82. When the built in thirty-one minute hold was initiated, readiness polls commenced to give permission for launch. At the end of the hold, at T-minus four minutes permission was given and the countdown resumed. Then lift off commenced and all three core boosters ignited their engines for the duration of their burns, four minutes for the side cores, and five and a half for the center. At one minute into launch the rocket was travelling over 1,000 miles per hour and the side boosters were at maximum power. Seconds later the rocket was moving five times faster than the speed of sound and the side boosters were jettisoned as the core booster throttled back up to full power. A minute later at fifteen times the speed of sound the core stage’s burn was finished and the first and second stage began separation. At this point the live feed cut off for the NRO’s security concerns and the payload fairings were jettisoned. Last we heard via ULA’s twitter feed the mission was success and all parts of the rocket and payload were acting appropriately.