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Electron and National Reconnaissance Office Ready for Flight

Electron stands on the pad as part of the “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission in December, 2022.
Credit: David Diebold

US-New Zealand based company Rocket Lab is preparing for their next mission to fly out of Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia: a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office at 2:40 AM on March 21, 2024. The mission is scheduled to be Rocket Lab’s fourth launch of 2024 and 46th Electron launch overall. This mission represents the continued growing partnership between the NRO and commercial launch providers, a capability the US government has been keen to exercise in recent years amidst a turbulent geopolitical climate. 

The NROL-123 mission, dubbed ‘Live and Let Fly’ in the company’s mission naming scheme, will be Rocket Lab’s first launch for the NRO from the United States after previously launching four NRO missions from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. It will be Rocket Lab’s 4th mission from Launch Complex 2, a dedicated pad for the Electron rocket located at Virginia Spaceport Authority’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Alongside the domestic launch of orbital missions, Launch Complex 2 has supported suborbital HASTE missions for the Department of Defense, potentially testing new hypersonic vehicles. Electron has had a fairly solid track record in recent months, bouncing back from an upper stage failure that resulted in a loss of mission in September, 2023. Out of 44 operational orbital launches, there have been 4 failures – a 90% success rate for the vehicle.  

The mission patch for NROL-123, featuring a mola mola, dragonfly and yellow jackets.
Credit: NRO

Speaking ahead of launch, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck noted that “Electron has been providing reliable access to orbit for the NRO since 2020 and we’re honored to once again provide critical launch capability, this time from U.S. soil. The ability to reliably launch national security missions from pads in two countries is a unique one that offers a rare level of responsiveness and resiliency for small satellite launch. We’re immensely proud to deliver this capability to the NRO, enabling them to maintain the nation’s advantage in space.” This relationship between the US Government and commercial providers such as Rocket Lab signals a change in operations from the historical precedent of large, heavy lift vehicles supporting NRO missions.   

The ‘Live and Let Fly’ launch service was acquired using NRO’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract. RASR enables the NRO to explore new opportunities for launching small satellites through a streamlined, commercial approach. “Under this approach, RASR helps us pursue the use of both large and small satellites to create an integrated architecture that provides global coverage to answer a wide range of intelligence questions,” the NRO said ahead of the NROL-151 mission, the first for Rocket Lab in 2020. Through careful distribution, NRO missions provide critical information to more than a half-million government users, including every member of the Intelligence Community, two dozen domestic agencies, the military, lawmakers, and decision makers.

Electron launches the “Birds of a Feather” mission in January, 2020.
Credit: Scott Andrews/NRO

Since 1996, the NRO has managed a variety of orbital assets in coordination with several agencies around the world to provide near real-time, strategic observation of foreign and domestic assets. With the advent of commercial launch providers moving in to fill niches in the launch market, several agencies and departments within the government have moved to utilize new capabilities. Historically, most of the NRO’s missions have been large observation systems like the KH-11 and MISTY satellites, requiring the power of heavier rockets such as Atlas V, Delta IV and, more recently, the Falcon family. But the organization has expanded its use of small satellites and launch vehicles in recent years, deploying CubeSats and arranging dedicated launches on smaller rockets, such as Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur launch vehicle family as well as Electron.

In response to the dynamic and emergent commercial aerospace sector, the NRO created the contract vehicle known as SLIC, short for Streamlined Launch Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity Contract, to procure commercial launch vehicles for its more risk-tolerant missions. The first task order under the SLIC contract was awarded to the now-defunct company Virgin Orbit. The SLIC program is projected to award about $700 million in task orders over the next 10 years, including companies like Texas-based Firefly Aerospace and Rocket Lab. SLIC is open to U.S. launch vehicles that have flown successfully to orbit and allows providers to bid dedicated, rideshare or multi-manifest launch services, enabling a wide range of services to be presented for use. The NRO continues to rely on traditional heavy-lift national security launch vehicles for its larger and more critical payloads, coupling their awards within the National Security Space Launch contracts. 

Beyond launch, the NRO has looked to commercialize elements of its imaging systems, similar in scope to some elements of NASA, NOAA and SDA policy. In late 2023, Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, Albedo Space, Hydrosat, Muon Space and Turion Space were selected for the NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancements program, which seeks to acquire new types of electro-optical imagery beyond what the agency already procures from commercial groups BlackSky, Maxar and Planet Labs as part of a 2022 contract known as the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer, or EOCL. The NRO already has access to significant commercial sources of imagery under the existing EOCL contracts but now looks to utilize the next wave of technologies that have emerged in the industry in recent years, such as commercial non-Earth imagery – the imaging of objects in space – in response to a quickly changing geopolitical landscape. Dynamic response to in-space threats has been a notable area of interest for groups like the United States Space Force, who work closely with groups such as the NRO to manage both the terrestrial and in-space battlefront. 

Internationally, nations have begun to branch into both small satellites and launch vehicles in response to the shift in US operations, with many around the world looking to align themselves with their own capability, being complimentary or adversarial. With Rocket Lab and other partners, the National Reconnaissance Office looks ready to tackle a diverse and changing landscape. Missions like NROL-123 may seem like a small drop in the relative bucket – but each mission advances a piece on the chessboard of Earth and space domain awareness.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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