The biggest rocket launch ever to take place from the West Coast of the United States happened yesterday, January 20, when a massive Delta 4-Heavy delivery system flew to Earth's orbit carrying the latest US spy satellite. The mission and its payload are classified.
The main contractor on the new flight was the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the size of the delivery system selected for the job is an indicator that the satellite it carried to space was also impressive in size.
Since the US began its space program, no rocket of this size was ever launched from the West Coast. Take-off occurred at 1:10 pm PST (2100 GMT) on Thursday, January 20, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), in California.
The payload was only designated as NROL-49, but the media was not told what type of spacecraft it was. Cameras were allowed to roll for the first 6 and a half minutes following blast off, but a media blackout entered into effect after that time.
But the launch itself was a sight to behold, witnesses say. The appearance of the Delta 4-Heavy rocket, and the unmistakable sounds it makes while leaving the ground, permeated the air at the VAFG and its surroundings, they say.
The delivery system is taller than a 23-story building, clocking in at 235 feet (72 meters), and is also one of the newest additions to the US rocket fleet. The first flight using this system took place in 2004.
All other flights before this one, 4 in total, took place from the East Coast, and more specifically from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), in Florida. The launch facility is located right next door to the NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the home of the space shuttle fleet.
“This launch marks a significant milestone in our nation's space capability. We've really restored a national capability for heavy lift on the Western Range, something we have not had since the last of the Titan 4Bs flew out of Vandenberg,” said Lt. Col. Brady Hauboldt.
“This extends our ability to cost effectively deliver payloads of all sizes and compliments,” added the official, who is the US Air Force launch director, in a pre-launch interview.
The Titan 4B is the largest rocket to have ever flown from the West Coast ahead of the Delta 4-Heavy, but the last flight of such a system took place in 2005, Space reports.
According to official sources, the USAF had to pay more than $100 million to convert the SLC-6 launch pad at the VAFB so that it could support the new delivery system.