A military space plane spread its wings and a rocket stretched its legs during SpaceX’s Sept. 7 launch of a classified mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket rumbled from historic pad 39A at 10 a.m., as weather cooperated a day before Brevard County planned mandatory barrier island evacuations ahead of Hurricane Irma’s projected arrival.
On top of the rocket was the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an unmanned mini-shuttle resembling one of NASA’s retired orbiters, but about a quarter the size at 29 feet long and windowless. The program was riding for the first time on a SpaceX rocket, after four turns on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V.
To preserve the mission’s secrecy, SpaceX cut off its broadcast a few minutes into the flight, after nine Merlin main engines cut off and the first-stage booster fell away.
About two hours later, Gen. John Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, confirmed on Twitter that the launch was a success.
Boeing, which built and operates two reusable X-37B orbiters housed in former shuttle hangars at KSC, did the same.
After separating, the roughly 16-story Falcon booster pirouetted in space and flew back toward a pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The rocket stage touched down on four landing legs, announcing its return with sonic booms that reported across the region.