NROL-68: Delta IV Heavy readied for national security launch

June 14, 2023

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket and its U.S. national security payload are vertically integrated atop their launch pad for the upcoming NROL-68 mission in service to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and support from the Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC).

The encapsulated payload was transported to Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37 and hoisted aboard the rocket to begin the final phase of the launch campaign. The mission is scheduled for launch June 21 at 3:29 a.m. EDT (0729 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

This will be the 15th and penultimate flight of the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle.

NROL-68 extends a partnership between the NRO and ULA that began with our very first launch in 2006 and now totals 32 consecutive successes. This will be ULA's 33rd NRO launch.

Delta IV Heavy is readied to launch the NROL-68 mission. Photo by United Launch Alliance

The triple-core Delta IV Heavy is the only operational rocket in the world today that possesses all necessary attributes to meet the stringent requirements to perform the NROL-68 mission. It will be the NRO's 11th launch aboard ULA's heavy-performance rocket, which is recognized for delivering high-priority missions for national security and NASA. The rocket first flew in December 2004.

The payload aboard NROL-68 is designed, built and operated by the NRO in support of the agency's national security mission to provide intelligence data to U.S. senior policy makers, the Intelligence Community, and Department of Defense.

When the U.S. needs eyes and ears in critical places where no human can reach – be it over the most rugged terrain or through the most hostile territory – it turns to the NRO. The NRO is the U.S. government agency tasked with designing, building, launching and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites. Whether creating the latest innovations in satellite technology, contracting with the most cost-efficient industrial suppliers, conducting rigorous launch schedules, or providing the highest-quality products to our customers, the NRO never loses focus on who they are working to protect: our nation and its citizens.

Beginning in 1961 to declassification to the public in 1992, the NRO continues to work tirelessly to provide the best reconnaissance support possible to the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense.

Delta IV Heavy is transported to Space Launch Complex-37 for NROL-68. Photo by United Launch Alliance

Preparations for the NROL-68 launch began with delivery of the rocket from the ULA factory in Decatur, Alabama, to Cape Canaveral via the R/S RocketShip, our ocean-going cargo vessel that transports rocket elements to the launch sites.

Delta IV Heavy consists of a half-million pounds (227,000 kg) of hardware in the form of three common booster cores (CBCs) fitted with RS-68A main engines, a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) with an RL10C-2-1 engine and a metallic trisector payload fairing (PLF) that is 16.7 feet (5.1 meters) in diameter and 65 feet (19.8 meters) in length.

The rocket uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in all stages, with each RS-68A main engine generating 702,000 pounds (312.3 kiloNewtons) of thrust and generating a combined 2.1 million pounds (9.4 mega-Newtons) of liftoff thrust, and the RL10C-2-1 upper stage engine producing 24,750 pounds (106.7 Newtons) of thrust.

Testing and connection of the stages took place within the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) adjacent from the launch pad. The port and starboard boosters were attached to the center core, then the DCSS was joined to the interstage on the forward end of the center booster.

Also completed in the HIF, the Launch Mate Unit (LMU) was fastened to the three CBCs to serve as the structural base of the rocket when it stands atop on the pad's launch table. The LMU contains the 12 holddown bolts that fire to release the fully fueled, 1.6-million-pound (725,700-kg) rocket at liftoff.

Delta IV Heavy goes vertical to launch NROL-68. Photo by United Launch Alliance

The 170-foot-long (51.8-meter) rocket then emerged from the HIF, riding horizontally aboard a 36-wheel, diesel-powered transporter down the roadway to the launch pad.

The Fixed Pad Erector raised the vehicle upright at the pad to complete the Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) milestone in preparation for Delta IV Heavy to launch NROL-68.

A Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) was performed to exercise the rocket and ground systems in a practice countdown setting. Vertically attaching the encapsulated payload to finish assembly of the 235-foot-tall (71.6-meter) rocket followed as the last major event in the launch campaign.

NROL-68 will be the 388th Delta launch since 1960, the 44th Delta IV and 15th in the Heavy configuration. It also marks the 293rd launch of a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral and the 34th for the Delta IV.

One additional Delta IV Heavy is scheduled and will launch NROL-70 as ULA transitions its future missions from the East and West Coasts to the new Vulcan Centaur rocket. A single-core Vulcan is our next generation launch solution that offers affordability and even higher performance to launch heavy-class missions for the nation.


Learn more about the Delta IV Heavy NROL-68 launch

See more photos in our NROL-68 album