ULA Aborts Another Attempt to Launch US Spy Satellite on Atlas V Rocket

The ULA aborted another Atlas V rocket launch of a classified spy satellite for the U.S. government.
Brad Bergan

United Launch Alliance (ULA) aborted the planned launch of an Atlas V rocket into space on Wednesday, according to a tweet from the company. The company will be ready to try again in 48 hours — which presumably means Friday, Nov. 6, but no explicit launch schedule was initially announced.

This came on the heels of a 24-hour delay to swap crucial hardware — according to a tweet from the company.

The launch would have streamed live on ULA's YouTube channel at 5:54 PM EST on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and carried a classified U.S. spy satellite into orbit.


UPDATE Nov. 4, 5:49 PM EST: ULA Launch Director scrubs Wednesday launch

ULA scrubbed the Wednesday launch after an unplanned delay to allow an engineering team time to examine a ground system valve problem, according to a tweet from the company.

"Mission Director Col. Chad Davis has declared a scrub. ULA Launch Director Tom Heter III has relayed the decision to the launch team that launch operations will not continue tonight. We will be postured for another attempt in 48 hours," read the tweet.

While the next attempt date was not mentioned, the company suggested they will be prepared for another launch attempt beginning on Friday, Nov. 6.

UPDATE Nov. 4, 5:32 PM EST: ULA delays broadcast, launch still on

The ULA tweeted an update moments ago, delaying the launch broadcast for an unspecified duration.

"As we continue to troubleshoot a ground system valve, the live broadcast will be delayed until further notice," read the company's tweet.

The launch is presumably still on, so stay tuned for more updates.

UPDATE Nov. 4, 5:10 PM EST: ULA Atlas V launch 'on hold' while team investigates valve problem

The ULA's Atlas V mission is presently on hold as a team examines a ground system valve problem, which paused the countdown to today's scheduled liftoff of a U.S. spy satellite, according to a tweet from the company's Twitter profile.

"If you are just joining us, a ground system valve problem interrupted the countdown to today's #AtlasV rocket launch. A team was sent to the pad to troubleshoot, and those efforts re continuing. The countdown clock is holding prior to the start of fueling operations," read the Wednesday tweet.

"We do not have a target time for this evening's launch," read another tweet from the company.

ULA Launching new US spy satellite aboard Atlas V rocket

The two-stage Atlas V rocket will lift off from Space Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office — the agency managing the U.S. government's fleet of spy satellites.

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Weather and clouds permitting, the launch will move forward right after sunset, at 5:54 PM EST — possibly treating viewers to a dazzling show, since the early twilight of dusk (and dawn) place the sun in position to illuminate the rocket's plume, which makes the exhaust look like a gigantic jellyfish rising into the sky, Space.com reports.

Incidentally, such launches are often mistaken for UFOs because of their trademark squiggly clouds — but rest assured the clouds will be of very terrestrial origins.

Concerns around ULA's recent aborted rocket launches

This mission — dubbed NROL-44 — has suffered repeated delays due to a series of technical issues, which have raised concerns regarding the mission architecture.

Initially scheduled for launch in June 2020 and valued at $1 billion, the first launch attempt (on August 29) was scrubbed a mere three seconds before liftoff due to a regulator failure for the center core engine.

On Sept. 29, the launch was delayed yet again when "the terminal countdown sequencer rack (TCSR) identified an unexpected condition prior to the engine start sequence," according to an update from ULA's official website.

Elon Musk calls ULA 'complete waste of taxpayer dollars'

Roughly one week after the U.S. Air Force declared it would have SpaceX launch 40% of its national security missions from 2022 to 2026 — with ULA covering the remaining 60%, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk vented his frustration at the decision on Twitter, saying:

"Because their rockets are not reusable, it will become obvious over time that ULA is a complete waste of taxpayer money," tweeted Musk.

ULA launched first US Space Force mission to orbit

Despite delays and industry rivalries, the ULA has seen success in the recent past. The newly-formed U.S. Space Force launched its first mission into orbit via the ULA's Atlas V rocket in March 2020 — deploying the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite, a secure communications platform for the U.S. and its ally nations.

"I wanted to say congratulations to the newly-formed United States Space Force, and to say how excited we are to fly the very first mission for the Space Force," said ULA CEO Tory Bruno, during the broadcast. "And I think it's just so apropos that it is the advanced AEHF 6 spacecraft [that will] provide secure military communications around the globe."

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