The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, successfully launched a secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office on Thursday. The NROL-33 mission is classified, but the launch was the first to use the Atlas V rockets that have been in the spotlight recently after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia and SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government seeking to stop the use of such rockets.
The NROL-33 mission was launched atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41, located in Florida, at approximately 9:09 a.m. EDT on Thursday.
“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission!" Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president for the Atlas and Delta Programs, said in a statement. "The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force."
It was the second rocket launch for the ULA in a week, after the GPS IIF-6 satellite was launched for the U.S. Air Force on May 16.
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— NASA Kennedy / KSC (@NASAKennedy) May 22, 2014
The NRO launch is the first for the ULA since SpaceX sued the U.S. government, which led to an April 30 temporary injunction on ULA launches, which has since been lifted, and threats from politicians to ban the export of the Russian-manufactured engines used in the Atlas V rocket. The NROL-33 mission launch was part of the ULA's contract with the Department of Defense's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk sued the U.S. government over its recent decision to award the ULA with an EELV contract for 36 launches without a bidding process. Musk wants the U.S. to avoid Russian-manufactured components like the the RD-180 engines that are manufactured by NPO Energomash, and he noted that hundreds of millions of dollars were being awarded to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who, despite being hit with recent U.S. sanctions, profits from the sale of RD-180 engines to the ULA. Government officials are working to certify SpaceX for EELV launches but, for the time being, the ULA is the only company that is certified for EELV launches.
Though the NROL-33 launch is a classified satellite mission "in support of national defense," some of the designers at the ULA took a lighthearted approach to the mission by creating a mission patch design of a winged female warrior holding a sword in her right hand and lasers shooting from her left palm.