ULA Delivers Classified NRO Satellite to Orbit on Company's Second Launch in Less Than a Week

A ULA Atlas-V rocket launching a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnassiance Office  May 22, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Mission NROL-33. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

A ULA Atlas-V rocket launching a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnassiance Office on May 22, 2014, from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Mission NROL-33. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

A classified top-secret satellite for the U.S. government made its way to space this morning, thundering atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket into crystal clear blue skies from Cape Canaveral as expected at 9:05 a.m. EDT. The mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, NROL-33, is shrouded in secrecy, but according to ULA the payload was delivered to its intended orbit as expected.

“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission!  The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week.  Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”

Mission artwork for the National Reconnaissance Office Launch (NROL)-33 mission. Image Credit: ULA

Mission artwork for the National Reconnaissance Office Launch (NROL)-33 mission. Image Credit: ULA

The classified nature of NROL-33, including its destination orbit, carries such sensitivity that today’s launch webcast ended at the moment of the Atlas V payload fairing separation, but the launch vehicle itself—the 401 configuration of the Atlas V—offers up some possibilities for the size and weight of the payload.

Much speculation has abounded that NROL-33 may be an upgraded Satellite Data System (SDS) military telecommunications payload, perhaps bound for geostationary transfer orbit at an altitude of about 22,300 miles. The Air Force began to develop the first-generation SDS-A satellites in 1973 to provide America’s intelligence community with a network of orbiting relays, capable of transmitting real-time data and images from low-orbiting reconnaissance satellites which were out of range of ground stations (another of their responsibilities was to support voice and data communications for covert military activities). This first generation is believed to have been launched between 1976 and 1987, aboard Titan boosters from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The second-generation SDS-B satellites—three of which are thought to have been deployed on the classified shuttle missions STS-28, STS-38, and STS-53 between August 1989 and December 1992—operated in high-apogee and low-perigee orbits, ranging from as low as 300 miles and as high as 23,600 miles, and at steep inclinations which achieved their highest point over the Northern Hemisphere. This enabled them to cover two-thirds of the globe, relay spy satellite data of the entire Soviet land mass, and cover the entire north polar region in support of Air Force communications.

More recently, the third-generation SDS-C satellites are believed to have been aboard several Atlas missions from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since 1998, the most recent being NROL-38, which was lofted aboard an Atlas V 401 in June 2012.

Today’s mission represents the sixth ULA flight in less than four months, and marks the company’s fourth mission in seven weeks (and second mission in six days). Already in 2014, the company—which was formed as part of a merger between Boeing and Lockheed Martin—has delivered NASA’s latest Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-L) into orbit on 24 January, the Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF-5 and 6 satellites in February and on 17 May, and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)-19 and classified NROL-67 payload in April.

ULA’s next launch is scheduled to liftoff atop a Delta-II rocket from Vandenburg AFB in July to deliver the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 satellite for NASA.

Article written by AmericaSpace writers Mike Killian and Ben Evans.

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8 comments to ULA Delivers Classified NRO Satellite to Orbit on Company’s Second Launch in Less Than a Week

  • Tracy the Troll

    Does this Rocket use the Russian RD-180? ULA pays about 12M$ US for those right? So is this what we have a 2 year supply of? Have the Russians stopped exporting the engines or are they blowing smoke?

    • Joe

      The Atlas V uses the RD-180.

      ULA says they have a two year supply.

      As to whether or not the Russians are “blowing smoke”, time will tell.

  • libs0n

    Compare the EELV block buy to SLS-1. ULA’s president recently revealed the pricing structure for that block buy, and it came out to an average cost per launch of 225 million for 28 rockets. Due to the types of rockets, some of which are the Delta 4 Heavy, that translates to over 300 metric tonnes of launch capability for 6.3 billion dollars. Now, SLS will have consumed something closer to 12 billion dollars before it flies its first test flight, and that test flight will only be able to launch the equivalent of 70-90mt to orbit. And ULA will launch all those EELV flights before SLS-1 even flies.

    Not only would you have gotten more launch capability for your buck with EELVs, but you also would have had 6 billion dollars to spend on exploration payload development like a manned lunar program.

    This comparison is even kind to SLS: if NASA were the ones buying a bunch of EELVs instead of the DoD, they could get a price closer to the marginal cost of flights on top of that block buy, so they would be paying even less than that average figure. And unlike SLS, NASA would be able to tailor their purchases to their actual demand needs, saving money further that could be allocated to exploration payload development. Since it takes time to build payloads, they could completely avoid incurring expense for launch when they have nothing to launch that year, like this year where one and a half billion dollars will be spent on SLS with it flying precisely nothing to orbit for that massive sum.

    By the time SLS-2 rolls around, SpaceX will be smashing even the bargain of ULA versus SLS. Get used to the prospect of seeing dozens of Falcons flying from even the launch pad next to SLS’ while we endure years and years of wait and little mission extent.

    The great tragedy of the past decade and the next is that Ares 1 and now SLS have spoiled NASA’s exploration program with their poor value proposition when the capable and available EELVs were there all along to be used to put men into orbit, and men on the moon, and do so for the lesser budget needed that would have actually enabled those goals.

    • Joe

      Quite a tirade, considering the article is a simple apolitical report on a single launch of a single payload and nothing to do with either the SLS or SpaceX.

      There are so many unsubstantiated prejudicial assumptions made that (for brevity) I will only address only two.

      (1) “Not only would you have gotten more launch capability for your buck with EELVs, but you also would have had 6 billion dollars to spend on exploration payload development like a manned lunar program.”

      You assume that there would be no additional cost associated with assembling payloads for BEO activities in increments smaller than those that can be launched by the SLS. That is not true. The extra assembly would require a facility (different than the ISS) to support EVA/EVR assembly, cryogenic fuel stowage and transfer, etc. This would use a good portion (actually very probably all and more) of your hypothetical “6 billion dollars”.

      (2) “Get used to the prospect of seeing dozens of Falcons flying from even the launch pad next to SLS’ while we endure years and years of wait and little mission extent”.

      So we keep getting told (about the Falcon flight rate), but the reality is the Falcon is once again on stand down (due apparently to a first stage Helium leak they are having trouble tracking much less fixing). Next launch date no earlier than June 11. You will be much more convincing when (and a big if) the Falcon can be shown to fly at even much less stringent flight rates than you assume.

  • libs0n

    Joe,

    – SLS costs continue past the first test flight. For instance, there is a 4 year gap till the next test flight during which many billions of dollars are consumed. 4 years is a long time to wait, makes waiting for the next SpaceX launch look like no wait at all.

    – There are some missions that could have gotten underway immediately while a fuel depot capability and other human exploration payloads are worked upon.

    Did you know that Obama’s FY2011 space policy proposed a 3+ billion dollar robotic precursors mission series that included a lunar lander that would investigate ISRU possibilities? Funding for those missions was eliminated to pay for SLS. They could have been launched on EELVs.

    Here’s a pdf on them: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/457443main_EEWS_ExplorationsPrecursorRoboticMissions.pdf

    Personally to me, having a few robotic precursor missions including a productive lunar lander + rover while a fuel depot capability is worked on to enable human BEO exploration using the lower cost commercial launch vehicles seems a better value and a better policy to pursue than the tens of billions spent to have an unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule using SLS.

    • Joe

      “- SLS costs continue past the first test flight. For instance, there is a 4 year gap till the next test flight during which many billions of dollars are consumed. 4 years is a long time to wait, makes waiting for the next SpaceX launch look like no wait at all.”

      The “4 year gap” is one of a number of steps the political appointees running NASA have taken to make the SLS/Orion look as bad as possible. The current administration did not want the programs, so they are having them “slow walked” in hopes of eventually cancelling them.

      As to SpaceX next launch (whenever it comes), the issue is their overall schedule:

      – When the COTS contract was originally signed they were to fly their first operational CRS mission by November 2009. They actually flew in late 2012.
      – By the CRS contract they should have flown (on average) about six missions and delivered 22,000 lbs. of payload to the ISS. They have flown three missions and (by their own metrics) delivered 6,880 lbs. of payload to the ISS.

      Those are just one set of comparisons illustrating the difference between SpaceX promises and SpaceX performance.

      “Did you know that Obama’s FY2011 space policy proposed a 3+ billion dollar robotic precursors mission series that included a lunar lander that would investigate ISRU possibilities? Funding for those missions was eliminated to pay for SLS. They could have been launched on EELVs.”

      You appear to have overlooked this disclaimer in the pitch to which you linked (it is on the second page):

      “DISCLAIMER: The following charts represent at “point of departure” which will continue to be refined throughout the summer and the coming years. They capture the results of planning activities as of the May 25, 2010 date, but are in no way meant to represent final plans. In fact, not all proposed missions and investments fit in the budget at this time. They provide a starting point for engagement with outside organizations (international, industry, academia, and other Government Agencies). Any specific launch dates and missions are likely to change to reflect the addition of Orion Emergency Rescue Vehicle, updated priorities, and new information from NASA’s space partners.”

      In fact the administrations budgets proposals included a lot of grandiose talk of everything from propellant depots to nuclear rockets. It was a shopping list of everything anybody who had ever been interested in space ever wanted, but (as shown by the disclaimer) they funded none of it.

      • libs0n

        Joe,

        -The amount of money being spent on SLS and Orion isn’t slow walking anything. Heavy lift rockets are expensive, they take time to develop, there is little use for them because payloads for them are also expensive and take time to develop, and there isn’t enough money for much payloads on top of all the spending necessary for SLS/Orion development in the reality of the budget space available.

        -Unlike you, I understood the context of that disclaimer, which was about the fine tuning and choices to be made within the scope of the expected received funding, not about a wholescale defunding of the initiative. And you are mistaken, the administration did intend to fund that initiative to the tune of 3 billion dollars over the first five years, but the administration’s budget was reprogrammed to pay for SLS/Orion and the funding for the program eliminated to do so. SLS/Orion killed a lunar lander/rover project.

        • Joe

          You are going to believe whatever you want; even when your own links provide evidence to the contrary (your version of “context” notwithstanding, the disclaimer says what it says). The administration had (and has) no interest in the moon because “Buzz has already been there”.

          This discussion is also (as I mentioned in my first post) off topic for the article.

          You have made your requisite SpaceX commercial, so now you should be able to go participate in the Memorial Day Holiday.

          Have a nice day.