KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX today staged the stupendously successful Falcon 9 rocket launch at sunrise of a mysterious spy satellite in support of U.S. national defense for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) while simultaneously accomplishing a breathtaking pinpoint land landing of the boosters first stage that could eventually dramatically drive down the high costs of spaceflight.
Liftoff of the classified NROL-76 payload for the NRO took place shortly after sunrise this morning, Monday, May 1, at 7:15 a.m. EDT (1115 GMT), from SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The weather was near perfect and afforded a spectacular sky show for all those who descended on the Florida Space Coast for an up close eyewitness view of the rockets rumbling thunder.
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The rocket roared off pad 39A after ignition of the nine Merlin 1D first stage engines generated some 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
The Falcon sped skyward darting in and out of wispy white clouds and appeared to head in a northeasterly direction from the space coast.
“A National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) payload was successfully launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, at 7:15 a.m. EDT, on May 1, 2017,” the NRO said in a post launch statement.
“Thanks to the SpaceX team for the great ride, and for the terrific teamwork and commitment they demonstrated throughout. They were an integral part of our government/industry team for this mission, and proved themselves to be a great partner,” said Betty Sapp, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office.
The launch of the two stage 229 foot tall Falcon 9 was postponed a day after a last moment scrub was suddenly called on Sunday by the launch director at just about T minus 52 seconds due to a sensor issue in the first stage.
SpaceX engineers were clearly able to fully resolve the issue in time for today’s second launch attempt of the super secret NROL-76 for the NRO customer.
Barely nine minutes after the launch, the 156 foot tall first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket made an incredibly precise and thrilling soft touchdown on land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1, located a few miles south of launch pad 39A.
The quartet of landing legs attached to the base of the first stage deployed only moments before touchdown – as can be seen in my eyewitness photos herein.
Multiple sonic booms screamed across the space coast as the 15 story first stage plummeted back to Earth and propulsively slowed down to pass though the sound barrier and safely came to rest fully upright.
This counts as SpaceX’s first ever launch of a top secret US surveillance satellite. It also counts as the fourth time SpaceX landed a first stage fully intact on the ground.
As is typical for NRO missions, nothing is publically known about the satellite nor has the NRO released any details about this mission in support of national security other than the launch window.
Overall SpaceX has now recovered 10 first stages via either land or at sea on an oceangoing platform.
NROL-76 marks the fifth SpaceX launch of 2017 and the 33rd flight of a Falcon 9.
NROL-76 is the second of five launches slated for the NRO in 2017. The next NRO launch is on schedule for August 14 from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), California by competitor ULA.
Until now launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA) and its predecessors have held a virtual monopoly on the US military’s most critical satellite launches.
The NRO is a joint Department of Defense–Intelligence Community organization responsible for developing, launching, and operating America’s intelligence satellites to meet the national security needs of our nation, according to the NRO.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.