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Atlas V Rocket Lights Up Sky with Vandenberg Air Force Base Launch

After last-minute hiccup, United Launch Alliance booster soars away with spacecraft for National Reconnaissance Office


After a pair of recent delays, an Atlas V rocket roared to life at Vandenberg Air Force Base late Saturday en route to delivering clandestine cargo for the nation’s spy satellite agency.

Standing nearly 20 stories tall and weighing around 1.1 million pounds with fuel, the United Launch Alliance rocket lifted off at 10:49 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base.

Clear skies provided the perfect backdrop for spectators to follow the rocket’s flight for several minutes. Groups of people with their eyes on the sky were clustered at various locations around the Central Coast.

The rocket carried a National Reconnaissance Office payload for a mission dubbed NROL-42, but the exact duties of the new spacecraft remain top secret.

Plans called for jettisoning the payload fairing, or nose cone, more than 3 minutes after liftoff.

Since an NRO payload rode aboard the rocket, officials remained mum about other key milestones, such as spacecraft separation, for the remainder of the mission.

The countdown had extra drama after a crew member declared “Hold, hold, hold,” minutes before liftoff, and the team conducted a technical recycle successfully aiming for another try at the end of the launch window.

Saturday night’s launch marked ULA’s 25th mission for the spy satellite agency since 2002.

Earlier this month, the rocket launch was delayed a week by Hurricane Irma, which was hammering Florida, and two more days by a faulty battery before getting off the ground.

For ULA, NRO and the 4th Space Launch Squadron, this marked the second Atlas V rocket launch of 2017 from Vandenberg, following another on March 1.

The Altas V rocket produced blinding light and a thunderous rumble as it left the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Click to view larger
The Altas V rocket produced blinding light and a thunderous rumble as it left the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Ronald Williams photo)

With Atlas off the ground, the team now will turn its full focus to a Delta IV launch later this year from Space Launch Complex-6 on South Base.

“I’m not going to say it’s unusual, but it’s probably not common to have a booster at both Slick-3 and Slick-6 at the same time,” sais Lt. Col. Kenneth Decker, commander of the 4th Space Launch Squadron.

The Delta booster arrived in April so the team has supported dual operations at the two space launch complexes for months.

“I would say from a mission perspective it’s great,” Decker said. “My team is always anxious to be out there. Space launch is a lot of fun. It’s a great mission.

“To be able to go to both Slick-3 and Slick-6 on a daily basis and see the two boosters is really rewarding for the team.”

This wasn’t the only rocket launch planned in the coming weeks from Vandenberg.

Another Space Exploration Technologies Falcon rocket launch is planned for 6:06 a.m. Oct. 4 from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base.

That booster will carry the next 10 Iridium satellites into orbit, boosting the number to 30 for efforts to build a second-generation constellation of craft to enable communications across the globe.

Those satellites have already arrived at Vandenberg, where they are being prepped for launch.

Also in October, Orbital ATK plans to conduct a Minotaur C launch of 10 commercial Earth-imaging spacecraft at 2:37 p.m. Oct. 17 from Vandenberg.

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.

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