his summer, at 1:51 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, an unearthly roar shattered the afternoon quiet along the Florida coast. On Cape Canaveral, liquid fuel surged through the thick aluminum veins of a Delta IV Heavy rocket nearly as tall as the U.S. Capitol. Two million pounds of thrust in three symmetrical boosters fired the engines, sending the craft hurtling over the Atlantic Ocean into the heavens. Eighty seconds after takeoff, it hit Mach 1, the speed of sound.
The Delta IV Heavy, introduced in 2004, is America’s most powerful rocket, and this was only the ninth time it had launched. Even more exclusive, however, was its top-secret cargo: Inside its nearly seven-story-high nose cone was an Advanced Orion, the world’s largest satellite. About eight hours after launch, when the most advanced spy craft ever built went into geosynchronous orbit, it unfurled its gigantic mesh antenna, larger than a football field, and began eavesdropping on the Earth below.
The mission’s patch, dubbed “epic/terrifying” by the Verge, depicted a masked, armored knight standing defensively before an American flag. A sword strapped to his back bore a cross-guard resembling a set of claws. According to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the intelligence agency responsible for the satellite, the image delivered “a message of tenacious, fierce focus … representing extreme reach with global coverage.”