As SpaceX has launched both NROL-76 and OTV-5, does anyone at SpaceX know the trajectory of the vehicle, or is the falcon upper stage under the direct control of the Air Force?

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    $\begingroup$ I would be astonished if USAF had control of the upper stage. I'd also guess that there exists at least one SpaceX employee without a government security clearance who could discover or deduce the trajectory. Note that X-37 has an impressive ~3000 m/s ∆v maneuvering capability, so knowing the trajectory at second stage cutoff doesn't tell you where the spacecraft is now. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove: Note also that the X-37B will likely stay in orbit for years so that ∆v budget must be conserved. Additionally, most amateur and hostile satellite trackers will be watching that little dot go overhead most keenly in the coming weeks. The Falcon likely put the craft on an orbit that it will keep for some time. Inclination changes will saved for when less eyeballs are looking. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ Of course. It is extremely common and pretty much required for many employees of government contractors to get US security clearances. $\endgroup$
    – user428517
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ sgroves speaks the truth. At the USAF base where I worked, basically everyone who actually did mission-related work was a contractor and had at least a Secret clearance. The actual USAF and USN employees/service members on the base were mostly just there for oversight, some support services, and to run the country club (not kidding.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ Even if they don't "know" there will be many people there capable of figuring it out, if they were so inclined... $\endgroup$
    – Rozwel
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 19:18

1 Answer 1


The way something like this typically works is that the customer, in this case the Air Force, calls the path classified, to some level. In the contract, the customer declares what parts are classified, and how such classified data should be handled. That will include the fact that any SpaceX employee that has access to the classified data must have the right security clearance, and the classified data must be kept on an isolated computer network. SpaceX then determines how best to meet the contract requirements, including any requirements to secure their launch permission. I believe for classified payloads they don't require FAA approval. SpaceX then reports on their findings, including simulations and such.

If the launch is very classified, they might even compartmentalize the data, such that those who know the trajectory might not be able to see the satellite they are launching, to keep things even more secure. It is very likely that those who actually loaded the satellite on to the payload require a security clearance.

Bottom line, some employees at SpaceX must have a clearance to know what the trajectory was, as they would be too involved not to know.


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