Atlas 5 rocket launches classified military payload (UPDATED)

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 08:44 AM EDT, 06/20/12: Atlas 5 rocket launches classified military payload
  • Updated at 10:30 AM EDT, 06/20/12: Adding NRO statement on successful mission
CBS News

An Atlas 5 rocket carrying a secret military satellite puts on a show for area beach goers Wednesday as it climbs away on a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. (Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now)
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite blasted off Wednesday, climbing smoothly away from its Florida launching stand and successfully boosting its secret payload into orbit.

The view from a camera near the launch pad. (Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance)
Running two days late because of work to fix an environmental control system duct, the 188-foot-tall Atlas 5 roared to life at 8:28 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) and majestically climbed away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, trailing a brilliant plume of fiery exhaust from its Russian-designed RD-180 first-stage engine.

Without any strap-on solid-fuel boosters, the initial climb out appeared relatively sedate compared to more powerful variants in the Atlas family, but the rocket quickly accelerated as it consumed propellant at 1,500 pounds per second, arcing away to the East into the glare of the morning sun.

United Launch Alliance commentary continued through ignition of the rocket's single Centaur second stage engine. There were no apparent problems during the first four-and-a-half minutes of flight but as usual with classified missions, commentary ended just after the nose cone fairing was jettisoned, well before the NROL-38 payload reached orbit, and no other details were provided.

But in a post-launch statement, the NRO called the mission a success, indicating the payload made it to its planned preliminary orbit.

"This morning's flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams," Col. James D. Fisher, director of NRO's Office of Space Launch, said in the statement. "We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the nation."

It was ULA's fifth launch so far this year, the 31st for a Lockheed Martin-designed Atlas 5 and the second of four missions planned in 2012 by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office, which is responsible for the nation's fleet of spy satellites.