NROL-85 was moved to the West Coast at no additional cost to the government, and in return the NRO agreed to fly a repurposed first stage.
WASHINGTON – The National Reconnaissance Office mission NROL-85, launched on April 17 by SpaceX, was originally scheduled to fly from Cape Canaveral, Florida. But just 12 months before launch, the NRO informed SpaceX that it needed to send its payload to a different orbit, so the launch had to be moved to the western range at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
“This was a challenge,” NROL-85 mission manager Maj. Jonathan Schirner said at the NRO last week. “The plate” podcast.
National security space launch missions rarely move from coast to coast on such short notice, Schirner said. “It’s the first time we’ve done a rank change at the 12-month mark on the NSSL time frame.”
Typically, it would be very expensive for the government to change ranges like that because NSSL missions are planned two years in advance and SpaceX in this case had already started integration work at the Cape, Schirner said.
The NRO and SpaceX reached an agreement to move NROL-85 to the West Coast at no additional cost to the government, and in exchange, the NRO agreed to fly the mission on a repurposed first stage that had previously flown on another NRO mission. .
Under the deal, SpaceX would launch NROL-87 in February at Vandenberg and reuse the boost for NROL-85 in April. Schirner He said the deal was also possible because the Space Force Space Systems Command was able to examine the recovered propellant and approve it for reuse in just two months, a much shorter time frame than usual.
NROL-87 was NRO’s first launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket intended to be reused for a future mission..
Schirner said a lot of effort and coordination went into relocating NROL-85. “About 12 months ago, the director of the NRO decided that to preserve the opportunity to optimize the orbit, we would change the ranges to Vandenberg because he can reach the two orbits he was looking at,” he said.
NRO spacecraft are classified, and the agency does not disclose which payloads it launches on national security missions. Satellite tracker Ted Molczan he told Spaceflight Now he believed NROL-85 was carrying a pair of maritime surveillance satellites.
The use of a previously flown booster was “part of the renegotiation of the contract to get us to the West Coast,” Schirner said. “The reused booster was in that contract mod. And that really was a trade-off for a lot of the integration work that’s already been done on the Cape.”
“By using a repurposed impeller, we were able to move shorelines and we didn’t have to spend a dollar to do it,” he said. In most circumstances, the government would have had to pay the contractor for the integration work that had already been done, he added. “So I think when we talk about the benefits of a repurposed booster, we’re talking about taxpayer savings on one end, but specifically on this mission, we were able to achieve a priority from the NRO director while spending zero taxpayer dollars. to do it.”