April 15th at 6:45 am E.T. From SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base
SpaceX is really going all out this month. Squeezing in a launch of a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office between two crewed missions, with the possibility of a few more Starlink missions and perhaps a commercial customer. Just a week prior the company sent up the first all private crew to the International Space Station, now they are launch two satellites on a classified mission to protect our soil Then a week from now the astronauts of Crew-4 will take off on their Falcon 9 and brand-new Crew Dragon and head for the ISS to swap out with the members of Crew-3.
NROL-85 is just the second Falcon 9 rocket to launch through the NSSL (National Security Space Launch) contract from the Western range. Launch from SLC-4E (Space Launch Complex) at Vandenberg Space Force Base this morning the rocket’s first stage landed back at Landing Zone 4 just about eight minutes after launch. B1071 flew just two months ago, as it flew the NROL-87 mission, which makes today’s launch the first NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) launch to fly with an already flown rocket booster.
What is the NRO? The National Reconnaissance office is branch of the U.S. government that is committed to protecting the security of our country. Through unparalleled capabilities in space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. For over sixty years the NRO has used innovation and strategic partnerships to acquire, deploy and launch/operate our country’s spy satellite network. Critical to policymakers, the Department of Defense, over two dozen federal agencies, the Intelligence Community, and our military the NRO ensures that the United States maintains and expands its advantage amongst increasing challenges from our adversaries.
Whereas little is known about the payload on this mission, classified means classified after all, the speculation is that the pair of satellites launched today are part of the U.S. Navy’s NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) which was created during the 1970’s with a mission to create accurate geological maps of all the USSR’s ground and sea assets, designated the NRO’s Intruder mission.
What we do know about with each NRO mission though is their patches. Each patch is related to the mission in some way and the organization does usually give an explanation as to what and why the details are as they are on the design. The NROL-85 patch shows a cute small kitten looking at its reflection in a puddle and seeing itself as a large fierce tiger. With the mission phrase being, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” There are three stars on the patch which the NRO says represents guidance, protection, and allegiance. They also stated that the tiger in the reflection shows that while space can be challenging, a determined attitude helps the NRO go above and beyond to protect our nation.
On Tuesday April 5th SpaceX shared on Twitter that they had completed a static fire test of the Falcon 9 for the NROL-85 mission. This is a test where engineers fuel the rocket’s first stage and briefly ignite the engines to give teams data which ensures the booster is ready for flight again. If you know about Vandenberg, California, then you know the area is often covered in a marine layer of fog. The cold coastal waters of California mix with the cold air and heat rising from the land and it creates this thick fog layer which blocks out everything, including a launching rocket. April however is a good month to view a launch as on average the area only gets eight days of fog, today not being one of those days. Even though the air temperature was in the high forties and low fifties today the fog stayed away as T-zero occurred shortly after sunrise, giving an absolutely spectacular view at lift off. Then, about eight minutes after launching B1071 came back down to land just a few hundred yards away from where it lifted off, once again igniting in the sky above us as it slowed down to land safely on the ground. Just before landing we heard and felt the sonic booms associated with these landings, but not noticed when the boosters come back down on their drone ships offshore.
With the success of today’s mission, we reached a ninety-second reflight of a Falcon 9 rocket, closing in on the one-hundredth milestone. That’s out of a total of one-hundred-forty-eight total Falcon 9 launches, this being the fourteenth of those this year. today’s landing also marked the fortieth consecutive success, another milestone for the company as their successful landing streak continues to grow. Today also marks the twenty-second launch from the company’s SLC_4E in Vandenberg. They don’t get used quite as often as their launch sites in Cape Canaveral, Florida but the cadence on both coasts is increasing every year, and I’d expect to see many more by the years end.