Spectacular Delta-IV Heavy Lofts Secret NRO 37 Eavesdropper

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy booster lofting a classified multi-billion dollar NRO satellite from Cape Canaveral AFS Launch Complex-37B on June 11, 2016. Photo Credit: John Kraus / AmericaSpace
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy booster lofting a classified multi-billion dollar NRO satellite from Cape Canaveral AFS Launch Complex-37B on June 11, 2016. Photo Credit: John Kraus / AmericaSpace

America’s critical intelligence capabilities in geostationary orbit have been doubled with the apparently successful flight of a multi-billion-dollar secret Advanced Orion/Mentor eavesdropping satellite on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on June 11.

The $375-million, 235-ft-tall, 53-ft-wide, 1.6-million-lb, hydrogen/oxygen vehicle lifted off on 2 million lbs thrust, at 1:51 p.m. EDT, after an initial launch attempt was rained out June 9.

NROL 37 taking flight June 11, 2016. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
NROL 37 taking flight June 11, 2016. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing personnel, contractors, the media, and thousands of tourists watching from nearby Kennedy Space Center were rewarded to the spectacular sound and fire show put on by the mammoth rocket.

The triple bodied ULA Delta IV Heavy, with three upgraded Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engines, carried just the second, more sensitive version of the Mentor made possible by using the more powerful RS-68A engines.

The vehicle is made up of three attached core boosters towering 134 feet, with the middle one forming the base for the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) with the 25,000-lb thrust Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10B-2 engine that pushes total height to 235 feet.

The RS-68A engines were developed specifically for the launch of heavier Mentor eavesdropping satellite with important new capabilities that must remain secret. But the engine upgrade is now used on all Delta-IV models.

The new engines give the Delta IV Heavy an additional 170,000 lbs of thrust. That is nearly the equivalent of adding two Chrysler/Rocketdyne Redstone boosters at liftoff.

Seven Orion/Mentors have now been launched since 1995, three on the now abandoned Titan IVB/Centaur.

The Northrop Grumman satellite has a Harris mesh antenna spanning about 330 feet. The overall spacecraft was substantially upgraded starting in 2009 with the NRO 26 flight carrying the first “Advanced” Orion/ Mentor. Two of those versions were launched on Delta Heavies.

But starting in June 2012 with the Advanced Orion/ Mentor- NROL-15 launch, the Delta IV Heavies were equipped with the RS-68As, allowing the launch of Mentors with even more maneuvering, life extending, and eavesdropping intelligence capabilities.

This flight, designated National Reconnaissance Office NROL-37, is the second NRO flight with the RS-68As, although the completely different NASA Orion manned spacecraft engineering flight test, flown without a crew in December 2014, used RS- 68As as well.

The NROL 37 mission marked only the 11th flight of the the Delta IV Heavy since the vehicle made an inaugural test flight with a small student payload in December 2004.

Unfortunately, it was a partial failure when a malfunction caused cavitation in the oxygen/hydrogen propellant systems of the triple common boosters, forcing early shutdowns of the three propulsion systems that dove student payloads into the Atlantic.

Here is the sequence of events for the June 11 NROL-37 launch:

—Liftoff with max throttle on all three Common Booster Cores.

—47 seconds at, 3-mile altitude the core throttled down to 54.5 percent throttle while the side mounted cores maintained full thrust.

—-82-85 second maximum dynamic pressure and Mach 1 at 7 -mile altitude. The outboard RS-68s are at full power while the center RS-68A was throttled down to save propellant.

NRO 37 punching through the upper atmosphere atop ULA's Delta-IV Heavy. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace
NRO 37 punching through the upper atmosphere atop ULA’s Delta-IV Heavy. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

—235 seconds the two outboard cores began to throttle down to 54.5 percent max thrust at 56-mile altitude.

—-242-246  seconds the two outboard engines were shutdown and separated while the core RS-68A was throttled up to the 108 percent power level, where it fired about an an additional 90 seconds before cutoff (MECO) at 328 seconds into the flight, at 111-mile altitude. The fairing was separated just before MECO, after which ULA launch commentary ceased for security reasons.

—-At 337 seconds stage 2 separation was achieved at 123-mile altitude, followed by the first of three burns by its 25,000-lb thrust Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10B-2 engine.

—Initial second stage engine cutoff was predicted to result in a 190 x 244 km (118 x 151 mile) orbit.

—Second upper stage cutoff orbit was predicted by Molczan to be in orbit at 212 x 35,809 km (132 x 22,250 miles).

—Third upper stage burn was predicted to achieve a 35,746 km (22,211 miles) geosynchronous orbit, followed by release of the Mentor. The release position and where the satellite will be parked is classified.

The next NRO Delta-IV Heavy, designated NROL 71, will launch into an Earth-viewing  polar orbit from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in 2018, carrying the most advanced version yet of the original digital imaging KH-11 that first flew in December 1976.


WATCH: NROL 37 Launch from 1.5 Miles / ITL Causeway CCAFS

NRO 37 Mike Delta-IV Heavy NRO 37 ULA Delta-IVNRO 37 Alan Walters13403270_1170600446303629_910604042171297268_oTalia NRO 37 ULANRO 37 Mike ULAKraus NRO 37 ULA

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Missions » NROL » NROL-37 »


  1. The Delta IV launch video is quite extraordinary, on par with the Saturn V/Apollo flights in the 60’s and 70’s. Congratulations to the entire team who made this important mission a success.

    • Tom Vasiloff –

      Yep, “Congratulations to the entire team who made this important mission a success.”

      American taxpayers, including members of Congress, are also part of the “team” and should be proud of the many great things our nation can accomplish and has accomplished.

      “Two of the three experts who testified favored a more pragmatic approach, focusing on stepwise exploration by moving from low-Earth orbit to cislunar space near the Moon and then to the lunar surface itself. This would allow NASA to both achieve meaningful exploration goals and engage the burgeoning private space sector, which has been hungering to develop lunar resources. International partners are also more interested in the Moon than Mars.”

      And, “This approach appeared to intrigue some Republican legislators, including subcommittee Chairman US Rep. Brian Babin, a Texan whose district includes Johnson Space Center. This group seemed eager to consider a Moon-first approach to exploration of the Solar System and sympathetic to the idea that America has unfinished business there after the Apollo program.”

      From: ‘Space experts warn Congress that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” is illusory
      Testimony says NASA lacks the financial resources and technology to do the mission.’
      By Eric Berger Feb 5, 2016 At: http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/02/space-experts-warn-congress-that-nasas-journey-to-mars-is-illusory/

      Yep, “America has unfinished business” on the Moon.

      We Americans and our “International partners” need to find and “develop lunar resources”. It is that simple.

      And ULA’s large, powerful, and efficient Delta-IV Heavy could help us to find and develop those diverse lunar resources.

  2. Great launch video. I’ve been to a shuttle launch; this video captures the feeling of a live launch better than any I’ve seen.
    The ULA should keep this rocket, perhaps doing some upgrades to the engines, instead of pursuing the Vulcan program. I don’t buy into their cost assessments of this rocket. The US has a bad habit of throwing away good rockets; i.e. Saturn 5, Saturn 1B.

    • Geoffrey Beslity –

      “I don’t buy into their cost assessments of this rocket.”


      “The DIRECT alternative launch project included two or three RS-68 engines in “version 2.0” of the team’s proposal, but switched to the SSME for ‘version 3.0′.

      “The lower nozzle has an expansion ratio of 21.5 and is lined with an ablative material. The nozzle’s lining burns away as the engine runs, dissipating heat. This ablative coating is heavier than other engines’ tube-wall nozzles but much easier and less expensive to manufacture.”

      “RS-68B was a proposed upgrade to be used in the Ares V launch vehicle for NASA’s Constellation program.[12] The Ares V was to use six RS-68B engines on a 10-meter core stage, along with two 5.5-segment solid rocket boosters. It was later determined that the ablative nozzle of the RS-68 was poorly suited to this multi-engine environment, causing reduced engine efficiency and extreme heating at the base of the vehicle.[18]”

      Quotes from: ‘RS-68’ Wikipedia

      Would the new 3D print manufacturing technology allow for lightweight tube-wall nozzles at a reasonable cost?

      If so, would that extra cooling capability allow for the use of two super large SRBs, similar to those used on the SLS, to be used on the Delta-IV Heavy middle core?

      Such large SRBs would mean a much larger payload and could open up some interesting robotic Earth orbit and Lunar supply mission options for the Delta-IV Heavy.

      If the Russians can make use of a five core launcher, why shouldn’t we?

    • “If the Russians can make use of a five core launcher, why shouldn’t we?”

      Perhaps the answer to that question is that the Kennedy Space Center’s Launchpad 39A where such a super capable Delta-IV Heavy plus large SRBs and the RS-25/SRB powered SLS should logically be launched from has come under the monopoly control of a billionaire political friend of the President’s.

      Funny how the President’s billionaire political friend can get monopoly use of a very costly to build national historic site/enormous launchpad in order to gain extremely valuable brand recognition, reduce costs, and increase his profits while his same monopoly use also ‘stabs in the back’ by adding costs, or risks, to the missions of potential competitive super powerful launchers based on the RS-68 and RS-25 rocket engines, isn’t it?

      Do amazing engineering things ‘just happen’ or do politicians rule rocketry?

      Is common sense, logic, science, or our nation’s real interests rarely the most important issue?

      Does a President’s ‘anointed’ billionaire ‘golden boy’ get valuable technology transfers, secret money/sweetheart soft contracts, an enormous launchpad, and anything else he wants?

      Are there too many questions, too little transparency, and far too few trustworthy answers?

      • “Perhaps the answer to that question is that the Kennedy Space Center’s Launchpad 39A where such a super capable Delta-IV Heavy plus large SRBs and the RS-25/SRB powered SLS should logically be launched from has come under the monopoly control of a billionaire political friend of the President’s.”

        Pad 39B has been refurbished to a clean pad and could handle either.

        Having a pad available is not the roadblock. Having a paying customer for the rockets is.

        • Every President should be able to make sure his or her political ‘friend’ gets monopoly control over an enormous Kennedy Space Center launchpad that is needed for risk reducing “launch on need” SLS/Orion missions and cost reducing “dual SLS” launches, right?

          ‘Giving away’ or ‘renting cheap’ our national historic site Launchpad 39A with its excellent launch ‘brand name’ recognition so as to improve the profit margin of a billionaire political ‘friend’ along with encouraging everyone in the world to reinvent and proliferate cheap ICBMs/launchers is a great space legacy for our current President and obviously such a ‘wise’ policy should be imitated by future Presidents, right?

          Buy your ‘private’ and super duper improved Soyuz/8K74/R-7a and SCUD intercontinental ballistic missiles/launchers from whoever you want in the world because “Yippee!” we are going to save the human race from the “Doomsday Clock” by having every profit seeking billionaire and nation building cheap ICBMs/launchers and sending some “Death Volunteers” to that distant, radiation rich, and cold hell called Mars, right?

          See: “From: ‘On the Brink of Oblivion William Perry’s memoir, ‘My Journey at the Nuclear Brink’, serves as a clarion global warning.’ By Mortimer B. Zuckerman Chairman, Editor-in-Chief June 7, 2016 at: U.S.NEWS

          Hidden under the table space contracts, intellectual property transfers, and ‘wheeling and dealing’ by secretive government agencies is a basic tenet of our democratic country, right?

          Fiscally rescuing every wannabe human Mars mission ICBM/launcher company owned by a billionaire political ‘friend’ is the most critical space policy responsibility of every President, right?

          Ignoring our space laws and Congress and “high ranking NASA officials” to focus on helping a political ‘friend’ who is a ‘Mars bound’ billionaire is always a ‘wise’ Presidential national space policy, right?

          “That statement and his cancellation of Constellation have remained sore points between Congress (on a bipartisan basis) and the White House since that time. Many in the human spaceflight community reject the assertion that returning to the Moon is unnecessary before going to Mars, insisting that systems and humans should be tested closer to home where they could return more quickly in an emergency. Indeed, high ranking NASA officials agree, but explain that the United States cannot afford the systems needed to return to the lunar surface.”
          From: ‘House Appropriators Reject Asteroid Redirect Mission, Want Astronauts on Moon’ By
          Marcia S. Smith 23-May-2016 At: SpacePolicyOnline.

          We cannot afford lower risk and cheaper Moon missions, but of course we can afford much higher risk and significantly more costly Mars missions, right?

          And to make those legally required Lunar missions as costly and as risky as possible, ‘give away’ or ‘rent cheaply’ the famous enormous Launchpad 39A, that is needed for launching legally mandated SLS/Orion Lunar missions, to the President’s political ‘friend’ who likes to babble about how he is going retire on Mars and that reality is just a one in billions chance that we’re not living in a computer simulation and that his Mars missions come with the ‘clever’ disclaimer “It’s dangerous and probably people will die — and they’ll know that”.
          Quote from: ‘Elon Musk Wants Death Volunteers for Mars Mission’ By Sandy Fitzgerald Saturday, 11 Jun 2016 At: NEWSMAX

          OK, we all should be able to accept the wonderful ‘new computer simulation’ Mars “Death Volunteers” and pro international ICBM/launcher proliferation national space race policy ‘reality’ that Mr. Musk and the President have set up, right?

          And Mr. Musk gets monopoly control of Launchpad 39A that is needed to reduce risks and costs for legally required Lunar SLS/Orion missions and a bipartisan Congress should of course just ‘like it or lump it’, right?

          • ‘NASA Cancels All Travel to COSPAR Meeting in Istanbul’ By Marcia S. Smith 5/24/16

            “NASA is denying all travel for NASA employees and contractors to the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) conference to be held in Istanbul, Turkey beginning just five weeks from now. The reason: security.”
            From: ‘NASA Cancels All Travel to COSPAR Meeting in Istanbul’ By Marcia S. Smith 5/24/16 At: http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/nasa-cancels-all-travel-to-cospar-meeting-in-istanbul

            Yikes! Is someone in NASA starting to question the security context and wisdom of our pro international proliferation of cheap ICBMs/launchers that is at the core of our national space race policy to Mars that Mr. Musk and the President have strongly encouraged?

            Nah! The international proliferation of cheap ICBMs/launchers is a wonderful space thing!

            Yes sir Mr. President, we’ll get back to encouraging everyone on Earth to build cheap ICBMs/launchers to enhance our planet’s dive into Cold War II.

            “The most recent officially announced setting—three minutes to midnight (23:57)—was made in January 2015 due to ‘[un]checked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals’.[5] This setting was retained in January 2016.[6]”
            From: ‘Doomsday Clock Wikipedia’

  3. I must say I’ve warmed to the Delta IV a bit. It is sometimes painful to see how slowly it rises…but it didn’t seem to burn as badly.

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