Spaceflight Insider

Falcon 9 hotfire test blazes way for classified NROL-76 mission

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — A month after flying its first used Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX placed another rocket on historic Launch Complex 39A to perform a static fire test in advance of its upcoming flight for the National Reconnaissance Office: the classified NROL-76 mission.

This booster, which has not been previously flown, was rolled up the ramp to the pad and raised into the vertical position early Tuesday morning for the hot-fire test, which had a six-hour window that opened at noon EDT (16:00 GMT). The test took place a few hours into the window at about 3:02 p.m. EDT (19:02 GMT) April 25, 2017.

With the ignition of the nine Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage lasting only a planned few seconds, the test appeared to have gone without a hitch. A brief plume of smoke was seen before the engines shut down as planned. SpaceX later confirmed this via its Twitter account.

SpaceX performs static fire tests to ensure all is ready before the flight, including ground and rocket systems as well as the team performing the launch. It involves fueling both stages some 70 minutes before the test with rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen. Both are chilled to just above their respective freezing points. After the test, the remaining fuel is drained and the rocket safed.

Some time later, the Falcon 9 will be lowered back to the horizontal position and rolled into the vehicle’s Horizontal Integration Hangar just outside the launch complex’s gates. There, the classified NROL-76 payload will be integrated with the rocket.

Liftoff is planned to occur sometime in a two-hour window that opens at 7 a.m. EDT (11:00 GMT) April 30, 2017. This launch will be the first conducted for the NRO. In the past, the intelligence agency has put its spacecraft atop Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, both of which are operated by United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX was awarded a sole-source contract for this mission in 2016. The company hopes to compete with ULA for future NRO launches.

When does it fly, this will be SpaceX’s 33rd launch of a Falcon 9 and the fifth for 2017.

Since this is a classified mission, once the Falcon 9’s first stage, known as core No. 1032, detaches from the second stage, there will be no more video coverage for that portion of the flight. However, the company will continue to stream the first stage all the way down to a landing at Landing Zone 1 just south of the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

If the landing is successful, it will be the fourth ground touchdown performed by the Falcon 9 and 10th successful landing to date. The other six have landed downrange on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Since SpaceX’s first successful Falcon 9 first stage landing back in December 2015, the company has failed to bring back a planned recoverable stage only three times.


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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