RE: NROL-76 payload speculation

From: Ted Molczan via Seesat-l <>
Date: Sun, 16 Apr 2017 22:30:06 -0400
A web search has turned up an early 2013 interview with NRO Director Betty J. Sapp that appears to provide more
information on the timing, and possibly the nature of the award of NROL-76 to SpaceX.

First, a recap of NRO Director Sapp's widely reported testimony to Congress on 2013 Apr 25, in which she disclosed the
existence of a contract for a SpaceX launch, which the news media subsequently linked to NROL-76 when Falcon 9 was
disclosed as its launch vehicle in 2016.

Mr. ROGERS. Thank you.
Ms. Sapp, can you provide your perspective on the importance of
maintaining a launch capability and, in general, the unique requirements
of the NRO?

Ms. SAPP. Yes, Mr. Chairman. We do rely on Air Force to provide
a launch capability for us. We definitely leverage their efforts. The
NRO is reliant on ULA [United Launch Alliance] right now, just
as the Air Force is. We are doing our own certification, again, in
a very cooperative way with the Air Force for other providers. We
would hope that they are ready by fiscal year 2015. We were actually
on contract today with SpaceX for a smaller mission, but we
would expect them to compete for a mission we have in 2015.
We are certainly the ones who use the West Coast most often.
And we are certainly the ones who use heavy lift most often. So,
again, we rely on what the Air Force provides in the way of launch

Now, consider the following quote from an interview with NRO Director Sapp, published four weeks earlier by Intelligence
& Geospatial Forum on 2013 Mar 28:


Q: What is NRO's strategy for use of new launch capability?

A: NRO intends to take advantage of the full range of domestic launch capability to meet our requirements
for highly reliable, affordable space launch. Last summer, we awarded a delivery-to orbit mission that will
use a Falcon 9 launch vehicle, with launch planned for December 2015. We have also identified two launch
missions as candidates for competition; the first of the two must be awarded no later than December 2014
to support a planned launch in December 2016.

end quote

I believe that the "delivery-to orbit mission" refers to the launch suspected of being NROL-76. Note the later reference
to "launch missions." I was uncertain of the difference between the two mission types. A web search turned up a
plausible definition of the former:

"The US Navy came up with the idea of a "Delivery to Orbit" approach, where the payload contractor procured the launch
service commercially and provided it to the government as part of a package deal with the satellite. While potentially
more costly than the usual Air Force or NASA procurement of the booster, it offered the advantage of enormously
simplifying the management interfaces for the Navy. And of course it eliminated the government oversight that the
earlier approaches would bring, since the Navy would own no hardware until it was on-orbit and working."

If that is what NRO Director Sapp meant by "delivery to orbit mission," then taking the date of publication into
account, her statement could be paraphrased as:

"In the summer of 2012, we awarded a package deal for a satellite, in which the builder of the satellite will provide a
commercial launch on a Falcon 9, with launch planned for December 2015."

This would confirm the speculation I offered yesterday, regarding how SpaceX came to be awarded a national security
launch years before it obtained USAF certification. However, the term "delivery to orbit" remains obscure, so I am not
yet fully confident that I have found the correct definition. Does anyone have any relevant information?

Ted Molczan

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Received on Sun Apr 16 2017 - 21:30:57 UTC

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