SpaceX launched the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-85 mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 17. However, the NRO informed SpaceX barely 12 months before the release that it needed to transfer its payload to a distinct orbit, forcing the launch to be relocated to the western zone at Vandenberg Space Force Base facility in California.
Maj. Jonathan Schirner, NROL-85 mission manager, remarked on the NRO’s “The Dish” podcast this week, “This was a problem.” According to Schirner, national security space launch programs are rarely, if ever, relocated from coast to coast on those kinds of short notice. “This is the first time we’ve done a range modification in the NSSL timeline at the 12-month mark.”
NSSL missions are scheduled two years in advance, and SpaceX had already begun integration operations at the Cape, according to Schirner. The NRO and SpaceX reached an agreement to shift NROL-85 to the West Coast at no additional expense to the government in exchange for the NRO agreeing to launch the trip on a reused first stage which had earlier flown another NRO mission.
SpaceX would deploy NROL-87 in February from Vandenberg and reuse the booster for NROL-85 in April, according to the agreement. The agreement was also made possible, according to Schirner, because the Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC) was able to assess and approve the recovered booster for reuse in just two months, a far faster turnaround than typical.
NROL-87 was the very first NRO deployment of a Falcon 9 rocket that will be reused in the future. The relocation of NROL-85, according to Schirner, took a lot of effort and cooperation. “About a year ago, the NRO director determined that we should move ranges to Vandenberg since you can target both of the orbits which he was looking at,” he explained.
The National Reconnaissance Office’s spacecraft are classified, and the organization does not reveal what payloads it deploys in national security missions. Ted Molczan, a satellite tracker, told Spaceflight Now that NROL-85 was carrying two marine surveillance satellites.
The utilization of an already flown booster was “part of the contract renegotiation to bring us to the West Coast,” according to Schirner. “That contract mod has the reused booster. And that served as a nice counterpoint to a bunch of the previous integration efforts at the Cape.”
“We were able to switch coastlines without spending a dollar because we used a repurposed booster,” he explained. In most cases, the government would’ve had to reimburse the vendor for the integration work already completed, he added. “I believe that when we talk about the advantages of a reused booster, we’re having a conversation about taxpayer savings on the one hand, yet particularly on this flight, we were able to complete a focus of the NRO while expending no government cash.”