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Atlas V Rocket Blasts Off From Vandenberg AFB

Launch vehicle was carrying a top-secret satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office

The most powerful Atlas 5 rocket to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base delivered a promised light and sound show Friday night for spectators around Santa Barbara County along with carrying clandestine cargo to space.

The Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance blasted off at 7:19 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base, taking advantage of a hole in the rain clouds to get off the ground. The rocket’s rumble was seen and felt in Santa Maria, Lompoc and the South Coast.

The rocket carried a top-secret spy satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.

“This a national security payload and it’s something that we’re really excited about,” said Jeff Orschel, NRO public affairs officer.

“It’s so exciting to see this thing get off the ground,” added Sharlene Fairbanks-Kyte, an NRO spokeswoman, noting the many experts involved in the launch.

“There are so many teams of people behind any kind of a launch like this,” Fairbanks-Kyte added. That’s what so incredibly important, and it is so valuable for America and all our allies. We are truly doing things for the greater good. I think that’s something to always keep in mind. Everybody should be real proud how we are truly helping meet the needs of the intelligence community, DOD ….”

While the once-secret agency now boasts having a Twitter account, the NRO representatives still remained tightlipped about the spacecraft’s purpose or price tag of the mission dubbed NROL-35.

“We are honored to deliver the NROL-35 spacecraft to orbit together with our customers, the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “This mission was launched on the most powerful Atlas ever launched from California with more than 2 million pounds of liftoff thrust. This was enabled by the addition of the four solid rocket motors, providing additional performance as required to meet our customer’s needs.” 

While this was the most powerful Atlas V launch from the base, Delta 4-Heavy actually holds the top spot since it departs on 2.1 million pounds of thrust.

Friday’s party cloudy skies allowed spectators to track the 200-foot-tall rocket's departure for approximately four minutes. That included the blinking red dots of the just-jettisoned boosters as they fell away more than 100 second after liftoff.

"This has been an exciting mission" said 1st Lt. Adam Rich, lead Atlas V engineer for the 4th Space Launch Squadron.  "Not only is it the first use of four solid rocket boosters on an Atlas here at Vandenberg, but it is also the first launch a new second stage engine design."  

ULA officials heralded the new second stage engine’s first flight, with Sponnick saying they are “extremely pleased.”

Vandenberg’s final liftoff of 2014 had to wait a day due to the massive storm that pounded the Central Coast on Thursday night.

"This Atlas V launch marked the last of the year and I am very proud of the teamwork that led to the success of not only today's launch, but those that preceded,” said Col. Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander. “The hard work and dedication of everyone involved continues to ensure our nation's access to space. This was especially evident by our base electricians who worked tirelessly through last night's extreme weather to ensure power was available for launch."

Efforts at Vandenberg will now focus on supporting the ULA Delta 2 rocket set carry a NASA satellite to study soil moisture. That mission is planned for Jan. 29 from Space Launch Complex-2.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

An Atlas V rocket lights up that night sky at Vandenberg Air Force Base as it heads into orbit Friday night. (United Launch Alliance photo)

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