Secrecy News

NRO Has “Most Aggressive” Launch Record in 25 Years

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds, launches and operates the nation’s intelligence satellites, has been unusually active over the past year.

“We are nearly through the most aggressive launch campaign in over 25 years,” said Betty J. Sapp, the NRO Principal Deputy Director, at a March 15, 2011 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.  The record of that hearing was published (pdf) last month.

“We have successfully launched five satellites into orbit in the last six months, with one more launch planned next month,” she said in March.  “These successful launches have been a very important and visible reminder of the space reconnaissance mission NRO started 50 years ago, and continues with such great success today.”

The full record of the March 15 hearing provides an unclassified overview of national security space programs.  See “Budget Request for National Security Space Activities,” House Armed Services Committee.

Among other interesting points raised at the hearing, Gen. William L. Shelton of Air Force Space Command discussed the Air Force’s reliance on NOAA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite to detect disruptive solar activity.

“Located at a stationary point approximately 1 million miles between the Earth and the Sun, it gives us 30-90 minutes warning before the detected solar disturbance reaches the Earth and our space assets,” Gen. Shelton said in response to a question for the record.  “This enables us to implement measures to protect our space systems and services.”

This year’s 50th anniversary of the NRO (established in 1961) will be accompanied by some new declassification activity.  “Almost all” of the historical intelligence imagery from the KH-9 satellite (1971-1986) will be declassified within a few months, said Douglas G. Richards of the Joint Staff at an August 23 forum sponsored by the National Declassification Center.