On Aug. 28 the 4th Space Launch Squadron and United Launch Alliance successfully lofted a classified satellite payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office atop a Delta IV-Heavy, the largest rocket currently available in the U.S. inventory.
With an earsplitting roar that shook surrounding communities, the massive booster departed Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 11:03 a.m., PST, and soared into clear blue skies off the California coast.
Officially designated Delta 364 but nicknamed “Victoria” by mission team members, this is only the second Delta IV-Heavy to liftoff from the West Coast. Several others have been launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and one from Vandenberg in January 2011.
Standing over 230 feet tall and weighing more than 14 tons, the Delta IV-Heavy is a triple-body rocket assembled from three common booster cores (CBCs) mounted together side by side. Three liquid-hydrogen fueled RS-68 engines provide first-stage thrust at launch. The second stage uses a single RL10-B-2 engine to place the payload spacecraft in low Earth orbit. For Wednesday’s launch the starboard CBC was ignited two seconds earlier than usual so as to burn off residual gaseous hydrogen near the launch pad. This was deemed necessary because on previous flights, ignition of vented hydrogen has scorched foam insulation covering the CBCs. This phenomenon, coupled with the rocket’s slow initial departure speed, resulted in disconcerting images of the booster wreathed in flames as it ascended into the sky. The new procedure, however, proved quite effective in mitigating this problem.
Intensive preparations for the mission began April 29 when the rocket was rolled out to the launch pad. Two months later, Air Force and ULA crews put the vehicle through a dress rehearsal that followed a realistic launch-day script requiring the rocket to be fully fueled and powered so that team members could practice countdown procedures. It wasn’t until late July that the secret payload – identified only as NROL-65 – was encapsulated within its protective fairing and mated to the launch vehicle for checkout and integration.
As usual with NRO launches, detailed information on the payload was not publicly disclosed but this hasn’t stopped analysts from speculating on the basis of available clues. The size of the rocket and its payload shroud provided some general indication of the spacecraft’s size, and the launch trajectory indicated an orbital inclination of around 97 degrees. These factors and the launch time suggested to some that this was the final launch of a KH-11 optical surveillance satellite. Space analysts believe a total of 14 satellites of the KH-11 family, including improved models, were launched between 1976 and 1990.
It has been long suspected that the NRO ordered two more of these venerable spacecraft after the Future Imagery Architecture program’s planned KH-11 successor was canceled in 2005 when delays and cost overruns led Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to cancel that portion of the FIA program. The NRO was then forced to use one remaining KH-11 and build another from spare parts to meet the needs of the intelligence community. The first of those two satellites, NROL-49, was reportedly launched from Vandenberg on a Delta IV-Heavy in 2011.
Additional clues to the Aug. 28 mystery payload may be found in mission patches worn by military and civilian launch team members. The launch vehicle patch features a Delta IV-Heavy flying into the sunset, and includes the name “Victoria.” The payload patch shows an anthropomorphized American eagle holding the world in its right hand and a fanged serpent in its left. The snake’s tail forms the lower-case Greek letter omega, symbolically indicating the payload’s final flight. The eagle sports a tattoo on its left arm with the name “Buttercup,” and is wearing a desert camouflage tunic emblazoned with the U.S. flag and a tag reading “DYS.” The emblem also bears the Gaelic inscription, “Sheachadadh Do Rudai” (Delivering Your Stuff).