With a serene yet ever-watchful wild mountain goat forming the centerpiece of its mission patch artwork, the classified NROL-87 payload soared into orbit a half-hour after noon PST Wednesday for SpaceX’s 20th Falcon 9 launch out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. Liftoff of the brand-new Falcon 9 booster—tailnumbered “B1071” and already set to fly another payload for the National Reconnaissance Office in the coming months—occurred from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at 12:27 p.m. PST.
Less than eight minutes later, B1071 pirouetted her way back to Earth, touching down on solid ground at Landing Zone (LZ)-4, only 1,000 feet (330 meters) from SLC-4E. It kicked off the first of up to five flights in February, with a previously-flown Falcon 9 already standing proud on the East Coast for its own Thursday afternoon launch.
Today’s flight follows on the coattails of a spectacular January, which saw SpaceX fly four times from the East Coast from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Four flight-proven boosters lifted 98 Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit, together with the 105-spacecraft Transporter-3 “rideshare” payload and last Monday launched the second member of the second-generation COSMO-SkyMed (CSG-2) radar-imaging constellation for the Italian Space Agency (ASI).
But five days of back-to-back delays of CSG-2 from Thursday to Monday, caused by inclement weather at the Cape, moderate-to-poor booster recovery conditions and an unauthorized ship in the hazard area, ultimately scuppered SpaceX’s hopes of staging a fifth mission before the end of January. The veteran B1061 core was rolled out to Pad 39A last Saturday, with hopes that she might fly on the 30th or 31st with a 49-strong batch of Starlinks.
It would have been the first time that SpaceX had flown as many as five times out of Florida in a single calendar month. But it was not to be.
As the snakebitten (and, it seems, also weather-bitten) CSG-2 launch slipped day by day, the manifest squeezed and it became readily apparent that Starlink would run head to head with NROL-87, SpaceX’s first National Security Space Launch (NSSL) for the U.S. Government, targeted for Wednesday, 2 February.
When CSG-2 eventually flew on 31 January, there was some hope that SpaceX might attempt a remarkable “double-header” by launching—for the first time—a pair of missions on the same day from the East and West Coasts. Such an event might have seen NROL-87 fly at 12:18 p.m. PST from Vandenberg, followed by Starlink a mere 93 minutes later at 4:51 p.m. EST from the Cape.
In readiness for NROL-87, the brand-new B1071 core was transported overland from SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, to Vandenberg in December and underwent a customary Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ engines last Wednesday, 26 January. The booster was then removed from SLC-4E and returned to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) for the installation of its payload fairing and the highly secretive NROL-87 payload. The 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 returned to the pad overnight Tuesday and was raised vertical for launch.
The NRO initially announced its intent to fly NROL-87 during an expansive five-hour “window” from 8:37 a.m. through 1:38 p.m. PST on Wednesday, although this was narrowed to a T-0 of 12:18 p.m. Less than a half-hour before launch, SpaceX tweeted that the T-0 point had been further refined to 12:27 p.m.
The NRO has noted that B1071 is lined up for a second mission. “Today’s #NROL87 booster rocket core will be reused in a future launch,” it tweeted Wednesday morning. “This gives the core the ability to launch not one, but two NRO payloads into space.”
That second launch was left unspecified by the NRO, although Spaceflight Now has indicated that it might occur “later this year”; if so, it would likely be pointed at the NROL-85 mission, which is set for an East Coast launch in the fall.
The Request for Proposals for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) services for NROL-87 was issued back in January 2018, with proposals due the following April and an expectation that the mission would take place in Fiscal Year 2021. SpaceX won a $297 million contract in February 2019 to launch NROL-87 and two other missions, NROL-85 and AFSPC-44 for the Air Force Space Command.
The latter was renamed “USSF-44” following the formation of the U.S. Space Force in December 2019. Current plans are for USSF-44 to ride a Falcon Heavy from KSC as early as March, with NROL-85 expected to follow later in the year.
As for NROL-87, the purpose of the spacecraft itself remains under wraps, although it is believed that it will aim for an orbital perch at an altitude of 320 miles (510 kilometers), inclined 97.4 degrees to the equator. It marks the fifth classified payload to have been launched by SpaceX, the first of which was NROL-76 back in May 2017. Falcon 9s have since lifted the fifth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-5) in September 2017, the controversial Zuma—rumored to have been lost after its January 2018 launch—and more recently NROL-108 in December 2020.
And in addition to the USSF-44 and NROL-85 missions later this year, SpaceX has four more bookings for classified payloads in 2022 and 2023. A pair of Falcon Heavies will launch USSF-52 and USSF-67 from the Space Coast this year, whilst USSF-36 and NROL-69 are targeted to fly in 2023. SpaceX received the $130 million contract to launch USSF-52—originally identified as AFSPC-52 under Air Force Space Command authority—back in June 2018, with initial expectations that the mission would fly in the fourth quarter of 2020, although it has met with substantial delay.
More recently, SpaceX was awarded $316 million to launch USSF-67 in August 2020, with a targeted launch in the fourth quarter of 2022. And just last March, the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider received a $160 million contract to deliver USSF-36 and NROL-69 to orbit in the second and fourth quarters of 2023, respectively. Of this latter pair of missions, SpaceX will provide basic launch services, as well as “mission integration” responsibilities for USSF-36. It is understood that the NRO will fund mission integration for NROL-69 separately.
Wednesday’s successful launch of NROL-87 occurred under beautifully crystalline skies, with a pleasant absence of the fog which so often hampers visibility at Vandenberg. B1071 powered smoothly uphill on her first mission and returned to a safe touchdown on LZ-4, marking only the fourth occasion since October 2018 that a Falcon 9 core has landed on solid ground at the West Coast site. As expected, coverage of the mission ended a couple minutes after the payload fairing was jettisoned, at the request of the NRO.