A Delta IV Heavy rocket lumbered away from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday morning after lingering weeks longer than planned.
Liftoff of United Launch Alliance’s behemoth booster occurred at 11:10 a.m. from Space Launch Complex 6, the former facility for NASA’s West Coast space shuttle program that was canceled before any blastoffs occurred.
Eight minutes later, the rocket’s sonic boom reverberated throughout Santa Barbara County.
ULA officials would only confirm that the rocket’s nose cone had been jettisoned successfully, but they remained mum about whether the spacecraft separated as planned.
That’s because the rocket carried clandestine cargo for the National Reconnaissance Office, the nation’s spy satellite agency.
“We are very happy to have achieved another successful launch in support of our country’s national security mission,” said Air Force Col. Matthew Skeen, director of the NRO Office of Space Launch.
“This launch, like the ones that have come before, represents years of hard work and dedication from our government and industry team members and serves as a true testament to the meaning of teamwork.”
Skeen also thanked the mission’s partners “for their commitment to helping place this critical space asset on orbit.”
This mission, dubbed NROL-71, once aimed for departure Dec. 7 but encountered delays due to technical troubles and unfavorable weather, along with the holidays.
The longest delay stemmed from a pesky hydrogen leak that proved difficult to find and fix.
During Saturday’s countdown, the team tackled three last-minutes concerns, but mission managers agreed to proceed after delaying the launch by 5 minutes.
Delta IV rockets employ three common booster cores attached side by side to give the rocket more than 2 million pounds of thrust at blastoff.
The mission logo sports an eagle wearing military dog tags with the initials JLC for Civil War-era Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, a Union commander awarded the medal of honor for his heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, for holding the Union Army’s southern flank against an assault from Confederate forces.
“Col. Chamberlain’s heroism, leadership and commitment to ‘service before self’ exemplified the ethos of the American warfighter who the NRO has committed to serving each and every day,” NRO officials said.
Saturday’s launch marked the 132nd mission for ULA since the company formed in 2006.
It is the 382nd Delta launch since 1960, the 38th for a Delta IV rocket since 2002 and the 11th Delta IV Heavy.
Vandenberg has been home to three of the Delta IV Heavy blastoffs including Saturday’s departure.
This was ULA’s first launch of 2019 and the second launch of the year from Vandenberg, with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flying the final 10 Iridium Next satellites on Jan. 11.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.