By Jon Reino
At 9:35am EDT on Tuesday, June 15th, a Minotaur 1 rocket launched from Wallops Flight Facility carrying a trio of classified satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) develops, builds, and operates satellites for the United States national security community. Using cutting edge imagery and innovative satellite technology, the NRO has been maintaining America's advantage in photo-reconaissance for the last 60 years.
“NRO is the best in the world at delivering space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to more than 500,000 government users working together to keep America safe,” said NRO Director Dr. Christopher Scolese. “NROL-111 is the 16th payload we put on orbit in 18 months to advance our mission of providing critical information to every member of the Intelligence Community, two dozen domestic agencies, our nation’s military, lawmakers, and decision makers.”
This is the second dedicated launch by NRO from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast, the first being NROL-129 nearly a year prior on July 15th, 2020. These launches are a partnership between NRO, Northrop Grumman, U.S. Space Force, and Virginia Space, which manages the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).
Morning thunderstorms and high altitude clouds threatened to delay the launch, but after a 2 and a half hour weather hold NROL-111 finally soared above the Delmarva peninsula. Launch Pad 0B is violently rocked as the powerful solid motors ignite, carrying the vehicle to supersonic speeds in less than 30 seconds. Much of the East coast was able to see the Minotaur's lightning fast ascent.
The Minotaur 1 rocket is manufactured by Northrop Grumman. This is the vehicle's 12th launch, maintaining a 100% success rate. It uses the refurbished first and second stages of a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), along with more modern third and fourth stages shared with the Pegasus rocket. It stands 63 ft tall and is capable of delivering 1,278 lbs to Low Earth Orbit. The missile that the NROL-111 vehicle originates from was manufactured 54 years ago. The remarkable reliability and cost effectiveness of the Minotaur family of rockets allows government contractors to reach space quickly, safely, and cheaply.
Wallops Flight Facility is the only orbital launch site entirely owned and operated by NASA. It was originally constructed in 1945 to test emerging pilot-less aerospace technologies for NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The complex has played a crucial role in the development of many historic programs including test launches for the Mercury capsule to prove its abort and life support systems. On September 6, 2013, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) became the first American mission to the moon launched from a facility other than Kennedy Space Center. It was launched on a Minotaur V rocket, also from Pad 0B.
Virginia Space hopes to dramatically increase activity at Wallops Island over the next few years. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said, “MARS continues to attract diverse customers and support a wide variety of missions, ensuring that Virginia remains a premier leader in space exploration, research, and jobs. Virginia Space is well-positioned to play an important part in boosting our economic recovery and sustaining future growth.”
The next planned orbital launch from Wallops will be the NG-16 commercial resupply to the International Space Station, expected no earlier than August 1st. Small rocket manufacturer Rocket Lab is expecting the first launch attempt of their Electron vehicle from a newly constructed pad at Wallops some time in 2021. The NRO has already begun utilizing Electron for their clandestine missions from the existing Rocket Lab facility in New Zealand.
Words and Photos by Jon Reino