Spaceflight Insider

ULA set to launch mission for National Reconnaissance Office

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 in Florida with the classified NROL-37 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, June 2016. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

United Launch Alliance is preparing to launch the NROL-44 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office atop their Delta IV Heavy rocket early Thursday morning. 

Following a 24 hour delay due to a customer request, the launch provider is slated to fly its Delta IV Heavy on the type’s 12th mission. The payload, a school bus-sized satellite, is among the most technologically advanced and expensive satellites ever launched by the US Government. However, due to its highly secretive customer, the National Reconnaissance Office, little is known publicly about the satellite’s actual capabilities or design. 

Mission Art for the NROL-44 launch. Image: United Launch Alliance

Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs, released a statement on the launch. “ULA is proud of the long-standing history of supporting critical national security missions and the continued partnership with our mission partners… Only the Delta IV Heavy possesses the capability to deliver this unique mission to orbit due to a combination of heavy lift and the largest flight-proven payload fairing.”

Built in Decatur, Alabama along with its Atlas V and Vulcan counterparts, the Delta IV Heavy is currently the largest rocket in the ULA stable. Utilizing three Delta IV Common Booster Cores strapped together, the rocket is the heavy lift variant of the storied Delta IV program, with the final non-heavy variants making their final flights into retirement last year. Powered by 3 Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68 engines producing 2.1 million pounds of thrust, the rocket is fueled by cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen, a highly flammable mixture that notably produces a large fireball that often “crisps” the rocket body during ignition. 

The variant is scheduled to be retired and replaced by the Vulcan rocket, which will make its first flight in 2021. Following this launch, only four launches remain on the manifest for the rocket, with the final launch scheduled for 2023, where it will lift the NROL-68 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral, bringing an end to a decades long history of Delta series rockets. 

The launch is scheduled for 2:12AM EDT Thursday morning, and will fly from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Weather during the approximately four and a half hour launch window is currently predicted as being 80 percent favorable for launch, with the primary concern being a violation of the cumulous cloud rule. The rocket will travel to the East, before releasing its payload into a geostationary transfer orbit. 


Matt Haskell is a published aviation and spaceflight photographer and writer based in Merritt Island Florida. Born and raised outside Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, he moved to Florida’s Space Coast and began photographing and reporting spaceflight professionally full time in 2018.

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