The widely anticipated Delta IV heavy rocket launch went off with only a minor delay Saturday — dramatically lifting out of a plume of fire and smoke into a gleaming late morning sky from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The launch, postponed by just five minutes to resolve a handful of last-minute concerns, came after multiple cancellations in December, most recently for a hydrogen leak in the last seconds before the anticipated launch.
But United Launch Alliance representatives said the launch was given a “unanimous go” on Friday after a Launch Readiness Review.
The rocket, carrying top secret payload into space for the National Reconnaissance Office, dubbed the NROL-71 mission, lifted off at 11:10 a.m. Officials confirmed the two boosters jettisoned successfully minutes later before ending public updates due to the mission’s secretive nature.
Weather wasn’t quite perfect for launch, with ULA putting favorable conditions at 40 percent 20 minutes prior with winds at around 10 mph, down from 70 percent the previous day. But viewing was ideal with a few wisps of clouds dotting the sky and temperatures hovering right above 60 degrees.
Hundreds of rocket fans lined Ocean Avenue just outside of Lompoc in anticipation.
Shelly and Loyd Champion came up from Port Hueneme to watch. “I’m just a space cadet from the ‘60s,” Loyd Champion said. “It’s an awesome thing to see a rocket flying from the sky — the fire, the power.”
David and Brittany Breaux and their children Alana and Nathan came down from the Bay Area for the launch. They watched the delayed launch in December on TV; when it was scrapped at the last second, Nathan “threw himself down on the ground,” his dad joked.
An anticipatory silence fell over the gathered crowd in the minutes leading up to the launch. “Five-minute delay,” one man yelled, until it was repeated down the line of parked cars.
As the 90-second mark approached, only the buzz of the radio countdown and a few cars whizzing by could be heard.
Then, the rocket appeared over the hillside, a tiny dot in the blue sky.
“There it is!” went up the call.
As people shielded their eyes to watch the tiny speck shoot through the sky, the rocket left an ever enlarging trail of smoke behind.
Silence reigned for a few seconds longer as the boom of the rocket finally reached the packed road.
Finally, after less than a minute, the spectacle was mostly over, with only a few more diehard fans trying to discern where the now minuscule rocket had disappeared to in the sun’s glare.
A few hugs, smiles and pats on the back, and everyone was running to their cars to try to escape before traffic blocked the road.