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The Mission

Rocket: Atlas 5 (AV-006)
Payload: NROL-28
Date: March 13, 2008
Time: 3:02 a.m. PDT (6:02 a.m. EDT)
Site: Complex 3-East, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California
Broadcast: G26, Transp. 9, C-band

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Follow the countdown and launch of the ULA Atlas 5 rocket carrying a classified national security satellite. Reload this page for the latest on the launch.


America's Atlas 5 rocket made its much-anticipated maiden mission from the West Coast early Thursday morning, piercing ground-hugging clouds and fog that blanketed the launch pad to send a secretive spy satellite into orbit.

Read our full story.

Tower rollback photos can be seen here.

Launch photos can be seen here.

1109 GMT (7:09 a.m. EDT; 4:09 a.m. PDT)

Today's launch of the Atlas 5 rocket has been declared a success.

The national security payload was deployed by the rocket following liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It was the first Atlas 5 launch from the West Coast, which saw the Space Launch Complex-3 East (SLC-3E) pad modified to support the rocket.

"This is a proud moment in our company's history," said Michael Gass, United Launch Alliance president and chief executive officer. "This launch caps four years of planning and hard work modifying SLC-3E and then executing an outstanding launch campaign leading to this successful first launch."

"SLC-3E is a major accomplishment for the Atlas team in partnership with the Air Force and the NRO, and we are proud to demonstrate its capabilities by launching this important NRO mission to support national defense," added Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas Programs.

The Air Force's post-launch news release included these quotes from Col. Steve Tanous, 30th Space Wing commander at Vandenberg and spacelift commander for this mission:

"This launch was an incredible achievement for Team Vandenberg, ULA, NRO and our other fellow launch partners. The hard work and dedication of everyone involved for the first launch of an Atlas 5 and for the year here, continues to ensure our nation's access to space.

"I am very proud of the teamwork that led to the successful and historic Atlas 5 mission."

1050 GMT (6:50 a.m. EDT; 3:50 a.m. PDT)

A time-lapse streak photo of Atlas 5's launch from Vandenberg this morning is posted here.

1007 GMT (6:07 a.m. EDT; 3:07 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 5 minutes. The launch has gone into a news blackout. No further information about the Atlas 5 rocket's flight on the NROL-28 mission is expected to be reported in real-time.

We'll pass along any additional updates as they become available this morning.

1006 GMT (6:06 a.m. EDT; 3:06 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 4 minutes, 39 seconds. The two-halves of the Atlas 5 rocket nose cone encapsulating the NRO spacecraft have separated.

1006 GMT (6:06 a.m. EDT; 3:06 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 4 minutes, 29 seconds. Centaur ignition! The Pratt & Whitney-made RL10 powerplant is up and running at full thrust.

1006 GMT (6:06 a.m. EDT; 3:06 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 4 minutes, 10 seconds. The RD-180 main engine has completed its burn and shut down. And the Atlas 5's Common Core Booster first stage has been jettisoned!

1005 GMT (6:05 a.m. EDT; 3:05 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 3 minutes, 45 seconds. The engine is throttling down to keep a constant 5'g acceleration.

1005 GMT (6:05 a.m. EDT; 3:05 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 3 minutes, 30 seconds. The RD-180 main engine still firing normally, burning its mixture of highly refined kerosene and liquid oxygen.

1005 GMT (6:05 a.m. EDT; 3:05 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 3 minutes. The Russian-designed RD-180 main engine continues to propel the rocket higher into the sky and further downrange from the launch site.

1004 GMT (6:04 a.m. EDT; 3:04 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 2 minutes, 30 seconds. The Aerojet-made single solid rocket booster has been jettisoned from the Atlas 5 after completing its job of adding extra thrust for liftoff.

1003 GMT (6:03 a.m. EDT; 3:03 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 95 seconds. Booster burnout. The lone solid rocket booster has consumed all of its propellant, having provided the Atlas 5 an added kick during the initial climb away from the planet. The spent booster casing will be jettisoned shortly.

1003 GMT (6:03 a.m. EDT; 3:03 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 65 seconds. Atlas has reached Mach 1.

1003 GMT (6:03 a.m. EDT; 3:03 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 60 seconds. One minute into this nighttime ascent by the Atlas 5 from California.

1002 GMT (6:02 a.m. EDT; 3:02 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 50 seconds. The RD-180 main engine is throttling down to 89 percent thrust for passage through the region of maximum aerodynamic pressure.

1002 GMT (6:02 a.m. EDT; 3:02 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 30 seconds. The main engine firing at full throttle and the added thrust from the solid rocket motor generate a combined liftoff thrust of 1.2 million pounds.

1002 GMT (6:02 a.m. EDT; 3:02 a.m. PDT)

T+plus 15 seconds. The 19-story launcher is maneuvering to its southerly trajectory to deliver a secret spy satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.

1002 GMT (6:02 a.m. EDT; 3:02 a.m. PDT)

LIFTOFF! Liftoff of the Atlas 5 rocket on its maiden mission from America's West Coast. And the vehicle has cleared the tower!

1001 GMT (6:01 a.m. EDT; 3:01 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 20 seconds. "Go Atlas," "Go Centaur" called by launch team, verifying all systems are ready.

1001 GMT (6:01 a.m. EDT; 3:01 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 1 minute. Now 60 seconds from liftoff of the AV-006 rocket.

1000 GMT (6:00 a.m. EDT; 3:00 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 90 seconds. Launch control system is enabled. The flight termination safety system has been armed.

1000 GMT (6:00 a.m. EDT; 3:00 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 1 minute, 50 seconds. The automatic computer sequencer is in control of all the critical events through liftoff.

1000 GMT (6:00 a.m. EDT; 3:00 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 2 minutes. The Atlas first stage and Centaur upper stage are now switching to internal power. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen topping for Centaur will be stopped in about 10 seconds.

0959 GMT (5:59 a.m. EDT; 2:59 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 3 minutes. The Atlas first stage liquid oxygen replenishment is being secured so the tank can be pressurized for flight. Also, the RP-1 tank is being pressurized to flight level.

0958 GMT (5:58 a.m. EDT; 2:58 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 3 minutes, 50 seconds. Ground pyrotechnics have been enabled.

0958 GMT (5:58 a.m. EDT; 2:58 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 4 minutes and counting. The final phase of the countdown has begun for the inaugural launch of the ULA Atlas 5 rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base!

0957 GMT (5:57 a.m. EDT; 2:57 a.m. PDT)

Countdown clocks will resume in one minute. All is in readiness for flight today on the classified NROL-28 satellite deployment mission for the National Reconnaissance Office.

0956 GMT (5:56 a.m. EDT; 2:56 a.m. PDT)

The ULA launch director and the government mission director each have given their approval to press onward with the countdown.

0955 GMT (5:55 a.m. EDT; 2:55 a.m. PDT)

No problems were reported by the launch team during the just-completed poll. All systems are in readiness to continue with the countdown for liftoff at 3:02 a.m.

0955 GMT (5:55 a.m. EDT; 2:55 a.m. PDT)

Launch team polling is underway.

0953 GMT (5:53 a.m. EDT; 2:53 a.m. PDT)

Coming up shortly, the launch team will be polled for a "go" or "no go" to proceed with the count.

0948 GMT (5:48 a.m. EDT; 2:48 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 4 minutes and holding. The countdown has entered the planned 10-minute hold to give the launch team a chance to review all systems before pressing ahead with the 3:02 a.m. local (6:02 a.m. EDT; 1002 GMT) liftoff.

0947 GMT (5:47 a.m. EDT; 2:47 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 5 minutes. Standing by to go into the final built-in hold.

0946 GMT (5:46 a.m. EDT; 2:46 a.m. PDT)

The first stage liquid oxygen tank is reported at flight level.

0937 GMT (5:37 a.m. EDT; 2:37 a.m. PDT)

Flight control final preps are complete.

0936 GMT (5:36 a.m. EDT; 2:36 a.m. PDT)

The fuel-fill sequence for the first stage main engine is beginning.

0932 GMT (5:32 a.m. EDT; 2:32 a.m. PDT)

Thirty minutes to remaining until the Atlas 5 rocket blasts away from California on the NROL-28 mission, a hush-hush flight to deliver a spy satellite high above Earth.

Following ignition of the kerosene-fueled main engine, the single solid rocket booster attached to the first stage will be lit for liftoff. The 19-story rocket's trajectory will take it southward over the Pacific Ocean bound for orbit. The blindingly bright flame produced by the rocket should be visible across a wide area of central and southern California, weather permitting.

0923 GMT (5:23 a.m. EDT; 2:23 a.m. PDT)

The Centaur liquid oyxgen and the Centaur liquid hydrogen tanks are confirmed at flight level.

0922 GMT (5:22 a.m. EDT; 2:22 a.m. PDT)

The countdown clocks are heading to the T-minus 4 minute mark where a planned 10-minute hold will occur. Launch of Atlas 5 remains scheduled for 3:02 a.m. local (6:02 a.m. EDT; 1002 GMT).

0908 GMT (5:08 a.m. EDT; 2:08 a.m. PDT)

Fast-filling of the first stage liquid oxygen tank has been completed. Topping mode is now underway.

0907 GMT (5:07 a.m. EDT; 2:07 a.m. PDT)

The liquid hydrogen tank in the Centaur upper stage just reached the 97 percent level. Topping is now beginning.

0902 GMT (5:02 a.m. EDT; 2:02 a.m. PDT)

The countdown is continuing on schedule for launch just 60 minutes from now.

The history of Atlas rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base opens a new era today with the first flight by the Atlas 5.

Over the past 48 years, the Atlas program has launched 284 rockets from 15 different locations at Vandenberg. The first was an Atlas missile test in September 1959.

The site of today's launch -- Space Launch Complex 3 -- has been used for 33 previous Atlas missions dating back to July 1961.

0900 GMT (5:00 a.m. EDT; 2:00 a.m. PDT)

Hydrogen fueling has reached the 60 percent level on Centaur.

0854 GMT (4:54 a.m. EDT; 1:54 a.m. PDT)

The Centaur liquid hydrogen tank is 20 percent full. The cryogenic propellant will be consumed with liquid oxygen by the stage's Pratt & Whitney-made RL10 engine.

0847 GMT (4:47 a.m. EDT; 1:47 a.m. PDT)

The first stage liquid oxygen tank is half full.

0846 GMT (4:46 a.m. EDT; 1:46 a.m. PDT)

Chilldown of the liquid hydrogen system is now complete, allowing the super-cold rocket fuel to begin filling the Centaur upper stage.

0842 GMT (4:42 a.m. EDT; 1:42 a.m. PDT)

The Centaur engine chilldown has been initiated.

0841 GMT (4:41 a.m. EDT; 1:41 a.m. PDT)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank has reached flight level.

0836 GMT (4:36 a.m. EDT; 1:36 a.m. PDT)

First stage liquid oxygen tank is 20 percent full. Chilled to Minus-298 degrees F, the liquid oxygen will be used with RP-1 kerosene by the RD-180 main engine on the first stage during the initial four minutes of flight. The 25,000 gallons of RP-1 were loaded into the rocket prior today's countdown.

0832 GMT (4:32 a.m. EDT; 1:32 a.m. PDT)

Now 90 minutes from the scheduled launch time of 3:02 a.m. local. Fueling is underway and there are no reports of any technical problems in the countdown.

0829 GMT (4:29 a.m. EDT; 1:29 a.m. PDT)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank reached the 95 percent level. The topping off process is underway.

0829 GMT (4:29 a.m. EDT; 1:29 a.m. PDT)

The first stage liquid oxygen loading is switching from slow-fill to fast-fill mode.

0825 GMT (4:25 a.m. EDT; 1:25 a.m. PDT)

The chilldown conditioning of liquid hydrogen propellant lines is starting to prepare the plumbing for transferring the Minus-423 degree F fuel into the rocket. The Centaur holds about 13,000 gallons of the cryogenic propellant.

0824 GMT (4:24 a.m. EDT; 1:24 a.m. PDT)

About three-quarters of the Centaur liquid oxygen tank has been filled so far.

0814 GMT (4:14 a.m. EDT; 1:14 a.m. PDT)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank is 30 percent full.

0807 GMT (4:07 a.m. EDT; 1:07 a.m. PDT)

A "go" has been given to begin pumping super-cold liquid oxygen into the Atlas 5's first stage. The Atlas liquid oxygen tank is the largest tank to be filled today. It holds about 50,000 gallons of cryogenic oxidizer for the RD-180 main engine.

0803 GMT (4:03 a.m. EDT; 1:03 a.m. PDT)

Following the thermal conditioning of the transfer pipes, filling of the Centaur upper stage with about 4,300 gallons of liquid oxygen is beginning.

The liquid oxygen -- chilled to Minus-298 degrees F -- will be consumed during the launch by the Centaur's single RL10 engine along with liquid hydrogen to be pumped into the stage a little later in the countdown. The Centaur will perform firings today to deliver the secret satellite into the desired orbit.

0802 GMT (4:02 a.m. EDT; 1:02 a.m. PDT)

Two hours from liftoff of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket to haul a classified spacecraft into orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

0756 GMT (3:56 a.m. EDT; 12:56 a.m. PDT)

Chilldown thermal conditioning of the liquid oxygen transfer lines for the Centaur upper stage is now beginning to prepare the plumbing for flowing the cryogenic oxidizer.

0752 GMT (3:52 a.m. EDT; 12:52 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 120 minutes and counting! The launch countdown has resumed for this morning's flight of the Atlas 5 rocket following the planned half-hour built-in hold.

Clocks have one more hold scheduled at T-minus 4 minutes. That pause will last 10 minutes during which time the final "go" for launch will be given. All remains targeted for liftoff at 3:02 a.m. local (6:02 a.m. EDT; 1002 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

0738 GMT (3:38 a.m. EDT; 12:38 a.m. PDT)

The pre-fueling readiness poll of the launch team just completed by the launch conductor indicates all systems are "go" to proceed with the countdown this morning as planned. The ULA launch director and government mission director also gave their approvals as well.

0731 GMT (3:31 a.m. EDT; 12:31 a.m. PDT)

The final members of the launch pad crew are leaving the complex now, having finished their work.

0722 GMT (3:22 a.m. EDT; 12:22 a.m. PDT)

T-minus 2 hours and holding. The countdown is entering the first of two planned holds over the course of the night that will lead to the 3:02 a.m. local (6:02 a.m. EDT; 1002 GMT) launch of Atlas.

This initial pause lasts 30 minutes, giving the some margin in the countdown timeline to deal with technical issues or any work that is running behind. The final hold is scheduled to occur at T-minus 4 minutes and last for 10 minutes.

0702 GMT (3:02 a.m. EDT; 12:02 a.m. PDT)

Three hours left to go until launch.

The rocket will be flying in its 411 version with a four-meter fairing, a single solid rocket booster and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. This will be the second time that the Atlas 5 has launched in this configuration. The first was a commercial satellite mission in 2006. You can look back to our launch story for more details on this somewhat unusual rocket configuration.

0645 GMT (2:45 a.m. EDT; 11:45 p.m. PDT)

Guidance system testing, the flight control operational test, internal battery checks and C-band and S-band tracking and communications checks have been accomplished over the past little while.

0623 GMT (2:23 a.m. EDT; 11:23 p.m. PDT)

With the mobile service tower secured in its launch position, the ground crew has closed the doors. Final buttoning up of pad equipment will be completed over the next hour before all workers clear the pad for the remainder of the countdown.

0602 GMT (2:02 a.m. EDT; 11:02 p.m. PDT)

Now four hours from liftoff time.

Today's launch from Vandenberg's SLC-3 East pad comes more than four years since the last Atlas rocket roared away from the site. That was an Atlas 2AS rocket back in December 2003.

The pad underwent an extensive overhaul, with construction occurring in 2004 and 2005, to accommodate the larger and more powerful Atlas 5 family of rockets. Some of the major modifications included:

  • 30-foot extension to mobile service tower
  • 20-foot exhaust duct depth increase
  • 250-ton Fixed Launch Platform installed
  • Significant ambient and cryogenic fluid ground system modifications
  • Complete replacement of the Ground Command/Control/Communication system
  • New and refurbished Launch Control/Mission Support Centers

Our story from the groundbreaking ceremony held in January 2004 can be read here.

0535 GMT (1:35 a.m. EDT; 10:35 p.m. PDT)

The tower is clear of the vehicle as it continues to slowly roll away. Atlas 5 has been unveiled for its maiden launch from California.

Meanwhile, preps for the Atlas first stage liquid oxygen system and pneumatics, as well as Centaur liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen systems have been completed.

0529 GMT (1:29 a.m. EDT; 10:29 p.m. PDT)

Retraction of the mobile service tower has begun at the Space Launch Complex-3 East pad. The 8-million-pound structure is being wheeled back to its launch position a short distance from the Atlas 5 rocket.

The launch campaign for this mission started with hoisting of the bronze first stage atop the pad on Sept. 27, 2006, an event known as Booster on Stand. The on-pad assembly continued and the Centaur upper stage was attached.

A launch delay to await readiness of the classified payload meant the rocket had an extended stay on the pad. Preps resumed last year when the solid rocket booster was mounted to the first stage on Sept. 28, 2007. A demonstration of the rocket's ascent events was completed on Nov. 27, 2007.

A full-up countdown dress rehearsal in which the rocket was fueled and put through a launch day simulation was accomplished on Jan. 11, 2008.

Liftoff had been targeted for Feb. 26, but was postponed two weeks as a precautionary move to avoid possible in-space debris from the NRO's experimental spy satellite that was intercepted by a missile on Feb. 20.

0525 GMT (1:25 a.m. EDT; 10:25 p.m. PDT)

A "go" has been given to the pad crew to start moving the massive tower away from the Atlas 5.

0518 GMT (1:18 a.m. EDT; 10:18 p.m. PDT)

The launch team was just polled and the members verified there are no constraints for rolling back the service tower a short time from now. Final preps for the move are underway.

0502 GMT (1:02 a.m. EDT; 10:02 p.m. PDT)

The countdown is entering the final five hours to launch. There are no reports of any significant technical issues and the winds are not as strong as had been forecast. Rollback of the service tower should be coming up shortly. Liftoff remains set for 3:02 a.m. local time (6:02 a.m. EDT).

0340 GMT (11:40 p.m. EDT; 8:40 p.m. PDT)

The Atlas-Centaur rocket has been powered for tonight's countdown and launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. With the countdown clocks ticking toward the 3:02 a.m. local time liftoff, the launch team has started routine guidance system testing and flight control preps.

0215 GMT (10:15 p.m. EDT; 7:15 p.m. PDT)

As the countdown gets underway tonight, the launch team will power up the rocket and begin standard pre-flight tests to prepare the Atlas 5 rocket for its classified satellite deployment mission.

Rollback of the mobile service tower from around the rocket is scheduled to start at 10:22 p.m. local time (1:22 a.m. EDT; 0522 GMT), pending acceptable weather. Meteorologists have been worried about high winds posing a problem for tower retraction.

Crews at the pad will make preparations to systems and equipment before the site is cleared of all personnel about two hours after tower rollback.

A planned half-hour hold begins at 12:22 a.m. when the count reaches T-minus 120 minutes. With five minutes remaining in the hold, the team will be polled to verify all is in readiness to start fueling the rocket for launch.

Supercold liquid oxygen begins flowing into the Atlas first stage and the Centaur upper stage shortly after 1 a.m. local (4 a.m. EDT; 0800 GMT). Liquid hydrogen fuel loading for Centaur will be completed a short time later.

A final hold is scheduled at the T-minus 4 minute mark starting at 2:48 a.m. local (5:48 a.m. EDT; 0948 GMT). That will give the team a chance to finish any late work and assess the status of the rocket, payload, Range and weather before proceeding into the last moments of the countdown.

Liftoff is targeted for 3:02 a.m. local (6:02 a.m. EDT; 1002 GMT).

The exact length of the day's available launch window has not been revealed. But officials have said that the liftoff would not happen any later than 4 a.m. local (7 a.m. EDT; 1100 GMT).


The inaugural launch of an Atlas 5 rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base is scheduled for liftoff at 3:02 a.m. local time (6:02 a.m. EDT) on Thursday.

Few details are available about the classified launch, which will place a spy satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. In fact, the rocket's ascent is expected to enter a news blackout once the vehicle's protective nose cone is jettisoned about five minutes into flight. Confirmation of the launch's outcome could be announced sometime later in the morning.

This will be the first launch from a rebuilt site on the West Coast following Atlas 5's previous dozen flights from Florida.

The Space Launch Complex-3 East pad used by the now-retired Atlas 2AS rockets has undergone a facelift to support the much larger Atlas 5 vehicles. Modifications included raising the mobile service tower, building a launch platform for the rocket to stand upon and beefing up the flame trench.

Vandenberg is the primary U.S. launch site to place satellites into highly-inclined and polar orbits that fly above most of the planet's surface. With the addition of Atlas 5 to the West Coast, both of the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle programs now have pads there. The Delta 4 rocket has flown twice from there in 2006.

The weather forecast for Thursday morning's launch indicates strong winds could be a concern. There's a 60 percent chance of the winds being out of limits for the liftoff.

"A weak cold front will move onshore and dissipate Wednesday. Scattered to broken high clouds associated with the front will move in but will not impact the launch. In addition, marine layer fog and stratus will return during the early evening and last throughout the night," the launch weather team reported today.

"Surface winds, however, will increase during the day Wednesday, and gusty winds will linger overnight into the launch window. During the late evening winds will be north-northwesterly gusting to 25 knots, potentially impacting (mobile service tower) roll. Winds will stay north-northwesterly at 20-25 knots through T-0, just below the liftoff wind constraint."

The launch time outlook calls for decks of clouds at 300 feet, 18,000 feet and 25,000 feet, just two miles of visibility with fog, a temperature in the high 40s F and ground winds gusting to 25 knots. The high-altitude winds are expected to max out at 85 knots between 35,000 - 40,000 feet.

Should launch be postponed to Friday for some reason, the likelihood of strong winds being unacceptable for liftoff increase to 80 percent.

"Marine layer clouds and fog will move onshore again Thursday night, but the upper-level clouds will clear out," forecasters said of the 24-hour delay forecast. "Gusty, northwesterly winds will ramp up Thursday and extend into the launch window Friday morning. Winds are expected to gust up to 30 knots through T-0, which exceeds wind constraints for both MST roll and liftoff. Max upper-level winds will be westerly at 110 knots at 35,000 - 40,000 feet."

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