U.S. spy satellite launch halted 3 seconds before liftoff

The launch of a U.S. spy satellite from Florida was called off early Saturday morning, just three seconds before the rocket was to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Flames already were spewing from engines on the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, but a computer aborted the launch.

Mission directors quickly worked to ensure the rocket was secured and its fuel drained so engineers could further investigate the cause of the problem and crews could assess any damage to the launch pad.

"The bird is in good shape," Tony Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, tweeted after the abrupt halt. "This was an automatic abort during the ignition sequence. Cause seems to have been in the ground system."

ULA said the "required recycle time prior to the next launch attempt is seven days minimum."

The "hot fire abort" came at 3:37 a.m., a little over an hour after the initial planned liftoff. The first delay occurred because the temperature in a rocket compartment was slightly below the norm.

The launch already had been postponed from Thursday because of other technical problems.

The mission, called NROL-44, was to have been the 12th launch of a Delta IV Heavy, which was first used in 2004.

The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that is overseeing the spy satellite launch, is part of the Defense Department. According to its mission statement, it is responsible for developing, launching and operating America's reconnaissance satellites, along with data-processing facilities.

That data is used by the National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to produce photos, maps, reports and other tools for the president, Congress, national policymakers, warfighters and others.

The Delta IV Heavy, the fourth version of the Delta rocket, was developed to carry out missions for the reconnaissance office, U.S. Space Force and NASA. It also launched NASA's Orion capsule in a 2014 test flight and sent the Parker Solar Probe into the sun's outer atmosphere.

ULA plans only three more Delta IV Heavy launches from Florida -- including this one -- and two more from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. After that, the company plans to use its Vulcan rocket, which is under development.

Paul Brinkmann contributed to this story.

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