NRO welcomes SpaceX !

SpaceX was awarded with contract for launch services for National Reconnaissance Office. Contract covers single launch planned on May 2017 under code name NROL-76, but it is possible that is only beginning of the cooperation between SpaceX and NRO.

According to Spacenews.com, SpaceX signed agreement for one launch on May 2017. It will be first NROL mission with participation of SpaceX and surely it will give clear sign to United Launch Alliance that times of monopoly already ended. Of course, as usual in case of NRO, no information was unveiled-mission will be named NROL-76, but payload, launch vehicle and designated orbit are confidential. Head of the NRO, Betty Sapp announced during annual speech at the GEOINT conference (15-18 May 2016), that NRO will seriously start switching to Cubesat satellites as most perspective solution, which could help in cost cutting combined with satisfying technical capabilities for main NRO purposes. It was unveiled that changes in policy will be combined with extending list of space launch providers. SpaceX will join elite club of space contractors cooperating with NRO, which was until now, proudly occupied only by ULA. It was also unveiled during speech, that more than one launch were probably contracted. Betty Sapp mentioned during speech:

"We've bought launches from SpaceX."

So it is very possible that in 2017 we will see more SpaceX launch vehicles with NROL payload on atop. Launch vehicle with NROL-76 will be launched from Cape Canaveral AFS, probably from SLC-40 but it was not unveiled exactly when launch will be performed. Due the lower payload capacity comparing to Atlas V, it could be possible that NRO will launch smaller satellite or number of small satellites; it is probable that SpaceX will use Falcon Heavy during this mission.

General trend of switching from large satellites for smaller is noticeable in different government agencies in USA. Good example could be U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency which is seriously considering putting money and effort into small imaging satellites development. On 16 November 2015, director of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo announced, that NGA will put significant part of their budget for 2017 in developing small imaginary satellites. Goal for NGA will be obtaining peak number of small satellites in years 2018-2020. Statement announced recently by Betty Sapp seems to be nothing more than continuing general tendency. During previous GEOINT conference on 25 June 2015, Betty Sapp also put stress on starting using nanosatellites by NRO along with increasing cooperation with various companies from space industry. On 2015 Betty Sapp also stated that cost cutting will be important factor during further modifying of space policy of NRO-SpaceX with their reasonably priced Falcon 9 were surely warmly welcomed by NRO accountants. It seems that previous plans becoming reality even sooner than anyone, especially ULA, could predict.

Sources:

NRO discloses previously unannounced SpaceX launch contract

NRO’s Sapp Prods Unnamed Colleague on Resiliency

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