An Atlas 5 rocket blasted off on a crisp, clear Thursday night from Vandenberg Air Force Base, capping a surge of missions for the nation’s spy satellite agency.
The United Launch Alliance rocket, which stands some 19 stories tall, blasted off at 9:24 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base, crackling as it climbed into the sky and shaking homes in the Lompoc Valley.
Thursday’s gusty winds had threatened the mission but ultimately calmed enough to allow the rocket to get off the ground, much to the delight of spectators who declared the departure “awesome.”
“It was too spectacular to not witness,” said Tony Moore, a technician at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards AFB.
Officials remained mum about the outcome of the mission, only confirming that the rocket’s nose cone separated.
The secrecy is because the rocket ferried a hush-hush spacecraft to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, made up of Defense Department and CIA.
The spy satellite agency, whose existence was top-secret until 1992, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010-11.
“We had a great launch,” said NRO spokesman David Waltrop. “This is the sixth and final launch during NRO’s (50th) anniversary year and it concludes the most aggressive launch campaign in the last 25 years.”
The celebration comes amid a flurry of six missions that started last year — four of the launches occurred from Vandenberg.
Col. Alan Davis, NRO Office of Space Launch director, praised the team involved in making the launch happen.
“Their hard work and dedication ensures our nation’s critical edge in space well into the next decade,” he said.
Liftoff of the Atlas 5 rocket came two days late so crews could replace a faulty component on the rocket last weekend.
Until that problem, the launch campaign had kept to its schedule, overcoming challenges of power outages and problems caused by storms late last year on the Central Coast, according to Lt. Col. Jenns Robertson, 4th Space Launch Squadron operations officer and the Air Force launch director.
Vandenberg’s 30th Civil Engineer Squadron along with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. crews essentially rebuilt South Base power facilities to ensure the April launch could occur on time.
“That was a huge army, a fantastic effort,” Robertson said.
Soon after the September launch of another Atlas 5 at Vandenberg, the team began the steps to ready the rocket for this week’s launch. This was the fourth launch of an Atlas 5 from the base.
“We’re really proud of how fast this rocket has been processed,” he added.
Following Atlas will be another ULA rocket, a Delta 2 booster scheduled to depart June 9. That rocket will carry Aquarius/SAC-D mission for NASA and the Space Agency of Argentina.

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