BY JUSTIN RAY
Follow the countdown and launch of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket with a classified National Reconnaissance Office cargo. Reload this page for the very latest on the mission.
Video coverage for subscribers only:
VIDEO: ATLAS ROCKET LIFTS OFF THIS MORNING AS SEEN LIVE QT
VIDEO: REPLAY OF LAUNCH WITH NATURAL SOUND OF IGNITION QT
VIDEO: CLOSE VIEW OF SLC-3E PAD AS ATLAS LIFTS OFF QT
VIDEO: ANOTHER VIEW SHOWS ROCKET'S ASCENT INTO NIGHT SKY QT
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2003
This new collection of images shows the December 2 blastoff of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket carrying a classified cargo from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The gallery follows the first minutes of flight as seen from still and video cameras. Enter Gallery
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2003
A pad at America's West Coast spaceport, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, will soon receive a major makeover to transform the complex into a launch site for Lockheed Martin's next-generation Atlas 5 rocket. Read our full story.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2003
Serving as space-age sleuths tracking spy satellites high above Earth, a band of sky-watchers scattered around the globe are offering their insights into a clandestine cargo launched Tuesday atop an Atlas rocket from California. Read our full story.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2003
A Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket carried out a clandestine mission in the predawn darkness today, deploying into space what is believed to be a package of ocean surveillance satellites to aid the U.S. government track suspicious ships in the global fight against terrorism. Read our full story.
1118 GMT (6:18 a.m. EST)
T+plus 74 minutes, 5 seconds. SPACECRAFT SEPARATION! The classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office has been released into space following launch today by the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This marks the 67th consecutive successful launch by an Atlas rocket dating back to 1993.
1117 GMT (6:17 a.m. EST)
T+plus 73 minutes. About one minute from spacecraft deployment.
The Centaur second burn and spacecraft separation are occurring a few minutes later than the timeline released pre-flight.
1115 GMT (6:15 a.m. EST)
T+plus 71 minutes, 45 seconds. The Centaur has returned to a normal coast mode following its second firing.
1114 GMT (6:14 a.m. EST)
T+plus 70 minutes, 29 seconds. Confirmation of MECO 2. Centaur has completed its second firing, completing the powered phase of today's launch. Coming up on deployment of the NRO payload in just a few minutes.
1114 GMT (6:14 a.m. EST)
T+plus 70 minutes, 5 seconds. The Centaur has re-ignited for its second firing of this launch. Full thrust reported. The two RL10 engines will perform for a 17-second burn to accelerate the NRO payload into its required transfer orbit around Earth.
1113 GMT (6:13 a.m. EST)
T+plus 69 minutes, 30 seconds. Standing by for ignition.
1109 GMT (6:09 a.m. EST)
T+plus 65 minutes, 45 seconds. The upper stage is orienting to the proper position for the upcoming restart. It appears the timeline is a bit later than Lockheed Martin had announced.
1104 GMT (6:04 a.m. EST)
T+plus 60 minutes. Now one hour since launch. The Centaur stage is being prepared for restart.
1100 GMT (6:00 a.m. EST)
T+plus 56 minutes. Lockheed Martin officials says everything is still going well in the launch sequence. The upcoming burn of the Centaur is about six minutes away. The upper stage will then ready for deployment of the payload to complete the mission about 10 minutes from now.
1044 GMT (5:44 a.m. EST)
T+plus 40 minutes. See a map of the planned ground track that the rocket is following this morning.
1021 GMT (5:21 a.m. EST)
T+plus 17 minutes. We will take a brief pause in our live coverage during this quiet coast period.
1018 GMT (5:18 a.m. EST)
T+plus 14 minutes. Lockheed Martin reports that the Atlas-Centaur rocket has performed properly to this point in the flight.
1014 GMT (5:14 a.m. EST)
T+plus 10 minutes, 45 seconds. MECO 1. The Centaur main engines have shut down as planned following the first of two planned firings to deliver the classified NRO payload into Earth orbit this morning. The vehicle is now in a coast phase before Centaur re-ignition occurs in just under an hour.
1013 GMT (5:13 a.m. EST)
T+plus 9 minutes, 30 seconds. Just over a minute left in this burn of the Centaur upper stage.
1012 GMT (5:12 a.m. EST)
T+plus 8 minutes, 5 seconds. Engine operating parameters will look good on the RL10 engines.
1011 GMT (5:11 a.m. EST)
T+plus 7 minutes. The vehicle is flying right down the center of the projected path. No problems reported in this flight.
1010 GMT (5:10 a.m. EST)
T+plus 6 minutes, 20 seconds. The twin upper stage engines continue to operate normally.
1009 GMT (5:09 a.m. EST)
T+plus 5 minutes, 30 seconds. Good start-up signatures reported on the RL10 engines.
1009 GMT (5:09 a.m. EST)
T+plus 5 minutes, 3 seconds. The Centaur engine nozzles have deployed and ignition is confirmed.
1008 GMT (5:08 a.m. EST)
T+plus 4 minutes, 50 seconds. The sustainer engine on Atlas has shut down as planned. And separation of the Atlas stage has occurred.
1007 GMT (5:07 a.m. EST)
T+plus 3 minutes, 57 seconds. The payload fairing has been jettisoned. It is no longer needed to protect NRO payload during the launch.
1006 GMT (5:06 a.m. EST)
T+plus 2 minutes, 55 seconds. The booster engine system has shut down and the booster package -- the bottom section of the rocket -- has been jettisoned. The sustainer engine of the Atlas vehicle still firing.
1006 GMT (5:06 a.m. EST)
T+plus 2 minutes, 7 seconds. All four spent solid rocket boosters have been jettisoned from the Atlas. The casings were held onto the vehicle until passing into the cleared drop zone.
1005 GMT (5:05 a.m. EST)
T+plus 90 seconds. Good engine performance from the first stage and the air-lit solids continue to fire.
1005 GMT (5:05 a.m. EST)
T+plus 70 seconds. The ground-lit solid rocket motors have burned out planned. The air-lit motors have ignited.
1004 GMT (5:04 a.m. EST)
T+plus 30 seconds. The Atlas vehicle is heading downrange.
1004 GMT (5:04 a.m. EST)
LIFTOFF! Liftoff of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket launching a national security payload for the United States. And the vehicle has cleared the tower at Vandenberg Air Force Base!
1003 GMT (5:03 a.m. EST)
T-minus 35 seconds. The final status checks have been completed. All systems remain ready!
1002 GMT (5:02 a.m. EST)
T-minus 1 minute, 25 seconds. The Atlas stage has gone to internal power.
1002 GMT (5:02 a.m. EST)
T-minus 1 minute, 40 seconds. Launch Commit Start. The ground launch sequencer computer system is now controlling the countdown to perform the final steps to ready the rocket and launch pad equipment for liftoff.
1001 GMT (5:01 a.m. EST)
T-minus 2 minutes, 30 seconds and counting. The Western Range has verified it is clear for launch.
1001 GMT (5:01 a.m. EST)
T-minus 3 minutes and counting. The Atlas rocket is nearing an on-time liftoff this morning.
1000 GMT (5:00 a.m. EST)
T-minus 4 minutes and counting. The Flight Termination System and the vehicle's inadvertent separation destruct safety system have been armed.
0959 GMT (4:59 a.m. EST)
T-minus 5 minutes and counting! The clocks are ticking again. We are now inside the final portion of today's countdown to the launch of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket with a classified National Reconnaissance Office payload from Space Launch Complex 3-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Liftoff set for 1004 GMT.
0958 GMT (4:58 a.m. EST)
The countdown will resume in one minute.
0956 GMT (4:56 a.m. EST)
The Air Force/NRO management team has been polled to give the final "go" for liftoff. The clearance was given to resume the count at 0959 GMT for a liftoff of the Atlas rocket at 1004 GMT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
0956 GMT (4:56 a.m. EST)
The Lockheed Martin launch director has given his "go".
0955 GMT (4:55 a.m. EST)
The Lockheed Martin final readiness poll of the entire launch team was just performede. Everyone reported "go" for launch!
Liftoff is still targeted for 1004 GMT.
0954 GMT (4:54 a.m. EST)
The launch team is receiving their final briefing for the remainder of the countdown.
0950 GMT (4:50 a.m. EST)
The launch team is verifying that the cryogenic tanks are at flight level for launch.
0944 GMT (4:44 a.m. EST)
T-minus 5 minutes and holding. The countdown has entered this planned hold. This pause is slated to last 15 minutes. There are no major technical problems being reported by the Air Force and weather conditions are ideal this morning.
The Atlas-Centaur rocket is fully fueled and awaiting the final minutes before liftoff at 1004 GMT.
0939 GMT (4:39 a.m. EST)
T-minus 10 minutes and counting. Coming up on the planned 15-minute built-in hold at T-minus 5 minutes.
The launch team continues clicking off steps in their checklists as the countdown progresses this morning at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for launch at 1004 GMT (2:04 a.m. PST; 5:04 a.m. EST).
The Air Force launch weather officer has verified that conditions are acceptable for liftoff. At the launch pad currently, winds are one-knot from the south-southwest at 197 degrees and the temperature is 53 degrees F.
The launch time conditions are predicted to include winds from 120 degrees at a maximum of 8 knots and a temperature between 48 and 53 degrees.
0929 GMT (4:29 a.m. EST)
News reporters and photographers have gathered at Vandenberg to cover this morning's launch. They say skies appear clear and visibility is great.
0924 GMT (4:24 a.m. EST)
T-minus 25 minutes and counting. Clocks are headed to the T-minus 5 minute mark where a 15-minute hold is scheduled. Launch remains targeted for 1004 GMT.
0917 GMT (4:17 a.m. EST)
Fueling of the Atlas rocket and its Centaur upper stage is entering the final phases as the tanks are topped off. And as the countdown proceeds, the tanks will be replenished to replace the cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen that naturally boils away.
0912 GMT (4:12 a.m. EST)
The Centaur liquid hydrogen tank is nearing the 90 percent level.
0905 GMT (4:05 a.m. EST)
The Centaur liquid hydrogen tank is now half-full.
0904 GMT (4:04 a.m. EST)
Now about one hour away from the launch of Lockheed Martin's Atlas 2AS rocket carrying a national security cargo from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
0901 GMT (4:01 a.m. EST)
Atlas liquid oxygen tank has reached the 90 percent level.
0857 GMT (3:57 a.m. EST)
The liquid oxygen tank inside the Atlas booster stage is now at 70 percent. The Centaur hydrogen tank has been filled to the 10 percent level.
0854 GMT (3:54 a.m. EST)
The Atlas liquid oxygen tank is now half-full.
0852 GMT (3:52 a.m. EST)
The liquid hydrogen chilldown is now complete and the super-cold fuel is flowing to fill the Centaur upper stage. The cryogenic propellant will be consumed with liquid oxygen by the stage's Pratt & Whitney-made RL10 engines to propel the classified NRO cargo into the targeted orbit above Earth today.
0850 GMT (3:50 a.m. EST)
The first stage liquid oxygen tank is now 30 percent full. The super-cold LOX and the stage's RP-1 kerosene fuel will be used by the Rocketdyne MA-5A booster and sustainer engines during the initial minutes of flight.
Meanwhile, the final alignment of the Atlas rocket's inertial navigation guidance computer has been completed.
0845 GMT (3:45 a.m. EST)
The Atlas stage liquid oxygen tank is now 10 percent full as this morning's fueling operations continue.
0836 GMT (3:36 a.m. EST)
The chilldown procedure is beginning for loading liquid oxygen into the Atlas first stage.
0834 GMT (3:34 a.m. EST)
Launch of the Atlas rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base is 90 minutes away.
The Centaur liquid oxygen tank has reached the 95 percent full level.
0829 GMT (3:29 a.m. EST)
The Centaur liquid oxygen tank is now at 70 percent.
0828 GMT (3:28 a.m. EST)
The chilldown conditioning of liquid hydrogen propellant lines at SLC-3E is starting. This process is like the one performed on the liquid oxygen side earlier -- preparing the plumbing for transferring the Minus-423 degree F hydrogen fuel into the rocket.
0824 GMT (3:24 a.m. EST)
The liquid oxygen tank of Centaur is now half-full.
0821 GMT (3:21 a.m. EST)
The Centaur liquid oxygen tank is now 30 percent full.
0816 GMT (3:16 a.m. EST)
The Centaur upper stage's liquid oxygen tank is now five percent full in this initial portion of fueling operations.
0810 GMT (3:10 a.m. EST)
Chilldown conditioning of the liquid oxygen transfer lines has been completed and the launch team is now beginning to fill the Centaur upper stage with its its supply of super-cold cryogenic oxidizer. The liquid oxygen, chilled to Minus-298 degrees F, will be consumed by the Centaur's twin RL10 engines along with liquid hydrogen to be pumped into the stage a little later in the countdown.
0809 GMT (3:09 a.m. EST)
The Atlas stage's RP-1 fuel tank is being pressurized for launch. The tank was loaded with its supply of the highly refined kerosene last week.
0806 GMT (3:06 a.m. EST)
The "chilldown" procedure is now starting to thermally condition the liquid oxygen propellants lines at the Space Launch Complex 3-East pad in advance of loading the Centaur upper stage.
0804 GMT (3:04 a.m. EST)
T-minus 1 hour, 45 minutes and counting. The countdown is running again following the planned half-hour built-in hold. Activities remain on track for liftoff in two hours. Liftoff is targeted for 1004 GMT (2:04 a.m. local; 5:04 a.m. EDT).
0755 GMT (2:55 a.m. EST)
The launch team and management have been polled for a readiness to begin fueling the Atlas rocket as the countdown rolls on. All parties reported go status.
0754 GMT (2:54 a.m. EST)
Approval has been given for all remaining personal to clear the launch pad area.
0752 GMT (2:52 a.m. EST)
The Air Force launch weather officer has verified that conditions are acceptable for the upcoming cryogenic fueling operations. At the launch pad currently, winds are four knots from the southwest at 240 degrees and the temperature is 54 degrees F.
For launch time just over two hours from now, easterly winds are expected from 090 degrees at a maximum of 10 knots and a temperature between 46 and 52 degrees F.
0749 GMT (2:49 a.m. EST)
Now half-way through this planned built-in hold.
0736 GMT (2:36 a.m. EST)
At Space Complex Complex 3-East, crews just announced that the mobile service tower has been secured in its launch position.
0734 GMT (2:34 a.m. EST)
T-minus 1 hour, 45 minutes and holding. Clocks have entered the planned 30-minute hold in today's countdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base for launch of the Atlas 2AS rocket. Launch is scheduled for 1004 GMT (2:04 a.m. local; 5:04 a.m. EDT).
The count has 45 minutes of built-in holds scheduled leading to liftoff. A second and final hold is planned at T-minus 5 minutes for 15 minutes. The holds are designed to give the launch team a window of time to work any problems that could arise without delaying other pre-flight preparations.
Once the resumes, the activities to load super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen into the rocket will move into full swing.
0659 GMT (1:59 a.m. EST)
The mobile service tower is now confirmed clear of the Atlas rocket.
0655 GMT (1:55 a.m. EST)
Standing over 20 stories tall, the massive mobile service tower is rolling away from the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket at the Space Launch Complex 3-East pad. The structure completely encloses the rocket on the launch pad. It is used to erect the vehicle on the pad, give access to all areas of the rocket for workers and provide protection from the weather.
The rocket has been at the pad since March. The rocket was shipped from the Lockheed Martin plant in Denver to Vandenberg by a C-5 transport aircraft. After arriving at the launch site, the Atlas and Centaur stages were taken to the pad and stacked. In April, four strap-on solid rocket boosters were attached to the first stage. After a several-month delay in the launch campaign as requested by the payload, preparations resumed in early-September, said Lt. Brian Love, the booster operations controller, said in a recent interview.
"These things begin so many years out when they start processing toward the launch date it's an intricate ballet to get them all to come together at the same time," added Maj. Tom Steele, the Air Force launch director.
0649 GMT (1:49 a.m. EST)
The "go" has been given to the launch pad crew to begin tower rollback.
0647 GMT (1:47 a.m. EST)
The launch team has been polled for a readiness to rollback the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 3-East. No problems were reported.
Also, the Air Force launch weather officer has verified that conditions are acceptable for moving the tower. At the launch pad currently, winds are two knots from the southwest at 248 degrees and the temperature is 54 degrees F.
0625 GMT (1:25 a.m. EST)
Clocks continue counting down to today's Atlas rocket launch from California.
Over the past couple of hours, the launch team has worked through propulsion launch preps for the Atlas and Centaur stages, closed out the thrust sections of both stages, conducted Atlas and Centaur pneumatic preps and started the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen system preps.
Retraction of the mobile service tower from around the rocket is the next major milestone in the count.
0500 GMT (12:00 a.m. EST)
The countdown is now entering the final five hours for this morning's liftoff of AC-164 -- a Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket with a reconnaissance payload onboard for the U.S. government. Launch is expected just after 1000 GMT (2 a.m. local time; 5 a.m. EST).
It has been nearly 27 months since the last Atlas launch from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. To ensure the team and managers kept their skills sharp, seven mission simulations and two countdown dress rehearsals, in which the rocket was fueled, have been conducted in preparation for today's liftoff.
"Our launch team is well rehearsed for this," mission planner Capt. Lorne Serpa said in an interview last week. "The level of intensity of our launch rehearsals along with the number that we have accomplished have been going up every year. Personally I feel this Atlas crew has been tested more than any of our previous crews."
0115 GMT (8:15 p.m. EST Mon.)
The sun is setting, the launch pad is aglow with powerful flood lights and the skies are clearing as the preparations continue for the overnight launch of an Atlas 2AS rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Launch is expected to occur a few minutes after 1000 GMT (2 a.m. local time; 5 a.m. EST) to place a classified payload into orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.
"We have been practicing for a long time and we are excited about doing this mission. It is going to help our brothers in the field fight the war on terrorism," Maj. Tom Steele, the Air Force launch director, said in an interview.
"This plays a major contributing role in the fight in the war on terrorism that our country is deeply engaged in. This is a key component to assist various high intelligence agencies in our government to support that effort," added Terence Woo, the launch readiness manager from the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center.
Just over an hour after liftoff, the national security cargo will be released from the rocket.
This will be the 26th flight of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket, distinguished by four strap-on solid boosters, and the second Atlas mission for the NRO from Vandenberg in two years.
Watch this page for live updates during the countdown and launch!
MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2003
1940 GMT (2:40 p.m. EST)
Air Force weather forecasters are predicting an 80 percent chance that conditions will be acceptable for the Atlas rocket to lift off Tuesday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
A low-pressure system from the Pacific has brought clouds and light rain to the launch site. Improving conditions are expected by early tomorrow but low clouds will remain. The main concern for the launch attempt is clouds being too thick for the rocket to safely fly through, according to the weather team.
The launch time weather is expected to include stratocumulus clouds at 1,000 feet with 6/8ths sky coverage and tops at 4,000 feet, cirrus clouds at 22,000 feet with 3/8ths sky coverage and tops at 24,000 feet, visibility of 7 miles, east-southeasterly winds from 090 to 170 degrees at 5 to 10 knots and a temperature of 47 to 52 degrees F. Upper level winds are predicted to max at 65 to 70 knots from the west near 45,000 feet.
Should the launch be delayed to Wednesday for some reason, there is a 90 percent chance of meeting the weather rules. The low-pressure system will have moved out of the region, leaving only a few lingering low clouds and thin cirrus in the upper levels. Winds at the pad will be light and variable while conditions aloft will be from the west with max winds at 60 knots near 45,000 feet, the weather team reported.
1830 GMT (1:30 p.m. EST)
The Air Force has narrowed tomorrow's launch period from four to two hours. Officially, the Atlas rocket will liftoff sometime between 1000 and 1200 GMT (2-4 a.m. local time; 5-7 a.m. EST).
It is believed that the launch is targeted to occur near the opening of the two-hour period. The specific launch time remains classified.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2003
2357 GMT (6:57 p.m. EST)
Mission managers have cleared a Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket for blastoff early Tuesday on a hush-hush National Reconnaissance Office launch from California's Central Coast.
Liftoff will occur sometime between 0900 and 1300 GMT (1-5 a.m. local time; 4-8 a.m. EST) from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex 3-East pad. The specific launch time is classified.
Officials held the Launch Readiness Review on Sunday afternoon to discuss the status of pre-launch work, any remaining problems and the weather forecast. With no major technical snags and a favorable weather outlook, approval was given to proceed with the mission as scheduled, an Air Force spokesperson said.
The countdown will begin Monday evening.
Air Force meteorologists are calling for an 80 percent chance of acceptable conditions. Thick clouds over the launch site will be the chief concern during the countdown.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2003
A National Reconnaissance Office secret space mission, important for tracking potential terrorist movements involving ships, is poised for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The 13,700-pound payload of 2-3 ocean surveillance spacecraft is to be launched as early as about 2 a.m. local time Tuesday on board a U.S. Air Force/Lockheed Martin Atlas-Centaur. Read launch preview story.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2003
Delivery of a top-secret reconnaissance payload into space by a Lockheed Martin Atlas rocket remains scheduled for early Tuesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 3-East will occur sometime between 0900 and 1300 GMT (1-5 a.m. local time; 4-8 a.m. EST). The exact launch time is classified.
After a planned pause in pre-launch work for Thanksgiving, crews will return Friday for the final push to ready the booster, its cargo and the launch pad for the mission. Chores include activation of onboard batteries, loading pyrotechnics and the explosive bolts.
"It looks like we are proceeding nominally toward a Tuesday launch. We have had all of our issues either solved or in the process of being solved, and it looks like everything is manageable," Maj. Tom Steele, the Air Force launch director, said in an interview Wednesday.
The Flight Readiness Review was completed Tuesday and technicians spent Wednesday loading RP-1 fuel, a highly refined kerosene, into the Atlas first stage.
Officials will gather at Vandenberg on Sunday afternoon for the Launch Readiness Review, which gives approval to begin the countdown Monday.
"I think we got our last showstopper out of the way (Wednesday) morning, so we're green to go," Steele said. "We're processing full tilt now. We're good to go for Tuesday morning."
Launch opportunities are available on the Western Range Tuesday and Wednesday, with backup chances on Thursday and Friday, if needed, officials said.
The Atlas 2AS rocket, fitted with four strap-on solid rocket motors and a Centaur upper stage, will head south-southeastward on its trek into space for a 63-degree inclination orbit. About 66 minutes after liftoff, the clandestine National Reconnaissance Office payload will be deployed to complete the launch.
The mission is the third of three Atlas 2AS rockets scheduled to fly from Vandenberg. The first carried the flagship of NASA's Earth Observing System, the Terra spacecraft, in December 1999; the second lofted an NRO cargo in September 2001.
Following Tuesday's launch, Lockheed Martin will immediately begin work to renovate the Space Launch Complex 3-East pad for the larger Atlas 5 rocket family, including raising the mobile service tower 30 feet to accommodate the tall vehicles, building a fixed launch platform for the rockets to sit upon, modifying the umbilical tower and enlarging the flame trench. The Air Force has awarded five West Coast missions to the Atlas 5 starting in the second-half of 2005.
Watch this page for continuing pre-flight coverage and live play-by-play reports during the countdown and launch.