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Space Systems Command and SpaceX successfully launch third NSSL Falcon Heavy mission for the US Space Force


Powered by 27 Merlin engines, generating more than five million pounds of combined thrust, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Launch Complex (LC)-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Dec. 28, 2023 at 8:07 p.m. EST, carrying the US Space Force (USSF)-52 mission into Earth orbit. The Falcon Heavy carried the seventh mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the USSF. (Photo: SpaceX)

Space Systems Command (SSC) and SpaceX successfully launched the US Space Force (USSF)-52 mission at 8:07 p.m. Eastern (5:07 p.m. Pacific) Thursday evening using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex (LC)-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Falcon Heavy carried the seventh mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the USSF. 


“This was a very important mission and our teams worked shoulder-to-shoulder to ensure a successful launch,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive officer for Assured Access to Space and commander of Space Launch Delta 45. “Our national security space missions are the most stressing within our launch portfolio, and we have multiple world-class organizations that come together to make the magic happen. We’re having a great year, doing what we love to do putting capabilities into space to deter and, if necessary, respond to threats to our nation and its allies.” 

A unique nighttime double exposure captures the successful liftoff (left) of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and flight into orbit (upper center) of the US Space Force (USSF)-52 mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, followed by the deorbit reentry burn and landing (right) of the two side boosters at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 and LZ-2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Dec. 28, 2023. This was the fifth launch and landing of these Falcon Heavy side boosters, which previously supported USSF-44, USSF-67, Hughes JUPTER 3, and NASA’s Psyche mission. (Photo: SpaceX)

Government mission assurance also benefits from advances by industry partners that provide options that can save time and resources. In the case of USSF-52, that included booster recovery and reuse. 


“Missions like these require highly detailed analyses and reviews to meet challenging requirements that are addressed through our mission assurance process,” said Dr. Walt Lauderdale, SSC’s chief of Falcon Systems and Operations. “Success comes down to the incredible relationships we have with our industry and agency partners and the behind-the-scenes work that makes tough missions appear routine, and ultimately result in capabilities on orbit that give our nation the advantage we need.” 


The flight proven side boosters supporting USSF-52 were originally flown on USSF-44, which launched to a geosynchronous orbit from LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 1, 2022. The same boosters’ second flight was on USSF-67 on Jan. 15, 2023. Expanding reuse for national security space missions is a continuing effort of Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space directorate and SpaceX. Rapid, reusable rockets benefit all launch customers, creating cost effective access to space while providing both flexibility and additional opportunities to launch missions to orbit as building a new booster every time is not required. 

With its landing legs fully deployed, the two side boosters of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy successfully return to Landing Zone (LZ)-1 and LZ-2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, after launching eight minutes earlier from Launch Complex (LC)-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The combined government/industry team of Space Systems Command (SSC) and Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX) successfully completed the final National Security Space Launch of the year, Dec. 28, 2023 at 8:07 p.m. EST. The Falcon Heavy carried the seventh mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the US Space Force. (Photo: SpaceX)

The NSSL Phase 2 contract, awarded in August 2020, incorporated booster reuse from the start, resulting in commercial-like pricing for delivery to commercial-like orbits. As the AATS Directorate implements the Phase 3 strategy, it will continue to increase engagements with up-and-coming innovators that bring additional solutions for the most demanding and low risk tolerant missions. By expanding the family of launch service providers, USSF will continue to deliver on its mission of assured access to space for our nation’s warfighters and Joint Command. 


Space Systems Command is the US Space Force’s field command responsible for acquiring, developing, and delivering resilient capabilities and groundbreaking technologies to protect our nation’s strategic advantage in and from space. SSC manages an $15 billion space acquisition budget for the Department of Defense and works in partnership with joint forces, industry, government agencies, academic and allied organizations to accelerate innovation and outpace emerging threats. Our actions today are making the world a better space for tomorrow. 


For more information visit: https://www.ssc.spaceforce.mil

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