On June 20, an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a spy satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office. The launch was the 50th Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) take-off, including 31 Atlas V and 19 Delta IV missions since 2002.
“Twelve of the 50 EELV launches have been NRO missions and these have been vital to our overall mission of delivering on commitments critical to our national security,” said Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office. “I thank and congratulate ULA and the EELV program for the tremendous performance and achievement of this very impressive and noteworthy milestone.”
Although video of the launch was cut off a few minutes after launch due to the classified nature of its payload, hundreds gathered to watch the momentous take-off.
The EELV program was sponsored by the US Air Force to provide reliable, low cost space access. Although both Atlas V and Delta IV rockets sport superb records, they may face competition in future from SpaceX who is also marketing to the government. ULA has embarked on a cost cutting initiative against such an eventuality, including development of a common upper stage and avionics for both Atlas V and Delta IV. ULA is also partnering with several of NASA’s commercial crew candidates to launch their crew capsules.
The NRO has recently been in the news for donating two Hubble-class space telescopes to NASA. ULA is already readying its next launch for NRO, this one aboard a Delta IV on June 28 with 11 ULA flights currently scheduled for 2012. Although if the super secret X-37B space plane which landed June 16 after a 468 day orbital jaunt proves to be an effective reconnaisance spacecraft, the need for such launches may be greatly reduced in future.
Watch the launch below: