A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite roared to life and streaked into space Monday, the first launch of a clandestine NRO payload by the California rocket builder and the company’s fifth flight so far this year.
Mounted atop historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the Falcon 9’s first-stage engines ignited at 7:15 a.m. EDT (GMT-4), throttled up to full thrust and pushed the rocket away from Florida’s Space Coast atop a jet of flame and billowing clouds of steam.
Running a day late because of a sensor problem that blocked a launch try Sunday, the slender rocket climbed straight up and then arced over to the northeast on a trajectory paralleling the East Coast of the United States, putting on a dramatic early morning show for area residents and tourists.
About two minutes and 20 seconds later, after climbing out of the thick lower atmosphere, the nine first-stage engines shut down, the stage fell away and the single Merlin engine powering the Falcon 9’s second stage fired up to continue the boost to space.
At that point, the flight was proceeding smoothly and the second stage presumably put the satellite into its intended orbit. But in keeping with the clandestine nature of the mission, no payload-related details were released and SpaceX provided no details about the trajectory beyond confirming second stage engine ignition.
But the news blackout did not apply to the first stage, which flipped around and restarted three engines to kill off its forward velocity. It fired the engines again as it plunged back into the discernible atmosphere and fired up a single engine a few minutes later to guide itself tail first toward Landing Zone 1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Live video from tracking cameras on the ground and one on the side of the returning booster provided spectacular views as the rocket descended through low clouds, four steering “grid fins” keeping it properly oriented before a final single-engine rocket firing and deployment of four landing legs.
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SOURCE: CBS News, William Harwood