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Northrop Grumman rocket boosters help launch ULA Atlas V rocket

Stephen Kuper

Three of Northrop Grumman Corporation’s 63-inch diameter Graphite Epoxy Motors (GEM 63) rocket boosters were used for the first time to help successfully launch and deploy the National Reconnaissance Office launch 101 (NROL-101) on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle.

Northrop Grumman rocket boosters help launch ULA Atlas V rocket
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The GEM 63 strap-on boosters were developed under a co-operative agreement with ULA to provide additional lift capability for the Atlas V launch vehicle. Each motor contributes 371,500 pounds of additional maximum thrust, and up to five GEM 63 motors can support a single Atlas V launch.

Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said, “The GEM 63 rocket motors were developed to enhance the performance of the existing Atlas V launch vehicle while incorporating our flight-proven, heritage designs that provide a significantly lower cost for boost propulsion.”

Northrop Grumman has been supplying rocket propulsion to ULA and its heritage companies for a variety of launch vehicles since 1964. The GEM family of strap-on motors started in the early 1980s with the GEM 40, which supported 132 Delta II launches with 1,003 motors.


The company followed with the GEM 46, which flew 63 motors on seven successful missions on the Delta II Heavy launches, and the GEM 60, which retired in August 2019 with 86 motors flown over 26 Delta IV launches.

The GEM family has recently expanded with the development of the GEM 63XL variation to support ULA’s Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) successfully launched its NROL-101 mission aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).

NROL-101 was the agency’s fourth launch in 2020, the mission carried a classified national security payload designed, built and operated by the NRO in support of its overhead reconnaissance mission.


US Space Force Colonel Chad Davis, Director of the NRO’s Office of Space Launch, said, “We’re excited to be back at CCAFS with another successful launch alongside our partners at ULA, the 45th Space Wing, and the US Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center. The successful launch of NROL-101 is another example of the NRO’s commitment to constantly evolving our crucial national security systems to support our defence and intelligence partners.”

Data collected by NRO’s national security systems is used to provide intelligence to senior policy makers, the intelligence community and Department of Defence, as well as US-allied partners. Additionally, information collected by NRO systems can be used to assist emergency and disaster relief efforts in the US and around the world.

The NRO is the intelligence community element and a Department of Defense agency responsible for developing, acquiring, launching and operating America’s intelligence satellites to meet the national security needs of the nation.

Northrop Grumman also manufactured the Atlas V rocket’s Reaction Control System propellant tanks at its Commerce, California, facility, and eight retro motors at its Elkton, Maryland, facility that will assist first and second stage separation.

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