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A Delta II rocket lifts off from Vandenburg Air Force Base, Caif., carrying a classified payload.
AP photo by Ed Souza
A Delta II rocket lifts off from Vandenburg Air Force Base, Caif., carrying a classified payload.

ULA's first launch flawless, puts spy satellite in orbit

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

The United Launch Alliance's maiden flight was flawless Thursday, carrying a spy satellite into orbit after a 3 p.m. launch into the blue skies above Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Employees at the former Boeing plant, which ULA now owns, built the rocket in Decatur.

"We're excited and pleased with the first ULA launch," said ULA spokesman Doug Shores. "The entire launch team did a terrific job. We hope this is the first of many successful launches for our new company."

ULA, a joint venture of the satellite-launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., was finalized Dec. 1. It is the sole producer of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, and Decatur is home to ULA's sole production plant. The government launches almost all of its satellites with EELVs.

Shores said any changes to this launch resulting from the new company's formation were minor.

"Everything pretty much remained in place as it was," Shores said.

The payload was a classified satellite from the National Reconnaissance Office, NROL-21. The satellite separated from the rocket and entered its orbit at 3:58 p.m., after the Delta II carried it at speeds exceeding 15,000 miles per hour.

The two-stage rocket, a Delta II 7920-10, was 12 stories high, had nine strap-on solid rocket boosters and a 10-foot diameter nose cone.

The satellite's orbit is about 200 miles above the Earth.

ULA officials expect to add at least 100 employees to the 630 already employed at the former Boeing plant. The venture, headquartered in Denver, will have initial annual revenue of about $2 billion.

ULA does not expect any significant expansion of the 1.5 million-square-foot Decatur facility, but it will spend about $100 million making modifications necessary to facilitate a new production line for the Atlas, Lockheed's EELV product.

There are 21 launches planned for next year. The launches will include 12 Delta IIs, six Atlas Vs and three Delta IVs.

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