Year ends with a SpaceX Spectacular
9:00 AM Est atop a Falcon 9 rocket from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center
I will try to get through this article with no reference to the movie "Planet of the Apes" although it will be very difficult as the official mission patch provided by the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) is a Large Gorilla adorned with a mohawk and clenched fist raised to the sky. After being scrubbed on their first attempt two days prior the weather held at a 90% GO for launch today and the nine Merlin 1D engines ignited in unison and sent the Falcon 9 towards the heavens, only to return the first stage back at the Canaveral Space Force Station almost nine minutes later.
The NRO does not advertise what their top secret payloads are but generally we look for clues on the patch, and mission quote. The quote for this mission being "Peace through Strength" so your guess is as good as mine as to what bad ass technology may be held inside the fairings. A tweet from the agency on Dec. 14th had this to say about the design, “Gorillas are peaceful animals but can be fierce when necessary. Like the gorilla, our NROL-108 mission is constantly vigilant and ready to defend its own, demonstrating NRO’s commitment to protecting U.S. warfighters, interests, and allies.”
From the press site at Kennedy Space Center on the 17th, a mere three miles from the pad onlookers could barely make out the rocket. Visibility had decreased significantly as more haze and fog surrounded the area. This wasn’t the cause for holding the countdown as the weather was still a GO for launch. SpaceX soon announced a sensor reading in the second stage was the cause for the hold. With plenty of time left in the window to launch NROL-108 the teams on the pad moved to resolve the issue in the time needed, but was not to be so for that attempt. They then announced the plan was the next launch attempt would be December 18th with the launch window once again starting at 9:00 AM Est. Around midnight heading into the 18th though SpaceX tweeted out that additional check outs would be taking place and the new launch date was Saturday, Dec. 19th.
Around 2:00AM Est the Falcon 9 rocket was reported to have returned to the vertical position on LC-39A. As the sun rose over Cape Canaveral the rocket was clearly seen vertically on the pad. A great indication that things were progressing towards a launch. Shortly after 8:00 PM Est it was announced that the rocket was GO for propellant load. Forty-five minutes later at exactly 9:00 AM Est the Falcon 9 rocket ignited all nine of it’s 1D merlin engines under a beautiful Florida morning and the mission was underway. About nine minutes later a reverberating sonic boom was heard as the first stage booster touched down on LZ-1, on Canaveral Space Force base just a few miles south of the launch site.
In a record setting year from SpaceX this launch marked the 26th Falcon 9 rocket from Florida during 2020 and the 102nd flight ever. It also became the 70th overall landing of a Falcon 9 first stage booster, with twenty of those landings being RTLS (Return To Landing Site) on LZ-1 which is just nine miles south of the launch pad. Aa rare treat these days as most of the boosters come down on one of two autonomous drones ships many miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. With the landing so close people in the surrounding areas of Cape Canaveral heard the sonic booms that accompany the booster, booming just a second or so before it visually touches down. Booster 1059 previously supported the CRS-19,20 cargo resupply missions, followed by a Starlink launch and most recently the SOACOM-1B mission which also was an RTLS mission and the first Southern trajectory, or Polar launch from the Cape since the 1960’s.