Following the successful launch of a Delta IV rocket with the WGS-9 satellite Saturday night, Brigadier General Wayne R. Monteith and Major General David D. Thompson of the U.S. Air Force discussed the 45th Space Wing’s plan to ramp up to 48 launches per year – a feat made possible in large part due to the introduction by SpaceX of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System and the increasing and booming commercial launch market.
Breaking barriers – U.S. Air Force celebrates 70th anniversary, 67 years at CCAFS:
As part of the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force initiated a series of year-long celebrations on Saturday night with the launch of a Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-9 satellite.
Lifting off into the crystal clear night sky above Central Florida, the Delta IV marked the 3,550th rocket launch from the CCAFS and the fourth flight from the Cape this year.
With four flights under its belt, the 45th Space Wing is now preparing for the remaining 31 launches on this year’s manifest – the next two of which are scheduled within three days of each other on 24 and 27 March.
The 24 March launch will see a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, flying in its 401 configuration, deliver the Cygnus OA-7 mission to the International Space Station on behalf of Orbital ATK.
Three days later, on 27 March, SpaceX is – at time of publication – planning to launch the SES-10 mission on a Falcon 9 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center – a launch which will mark the first time SpaceX reuses a flown Falcon 9 first stage.
From a dozen launches per year to 48:
In the past ten years, the CCAFS and Kennedy Space Center combined have seen anywhere from between 7 to 18 launches per year, with the lowest of those numbers coming in 2008 and the highest in 2016.
However, this year alone, the CCAFS and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force plan to nearly double its 2016 number, with 35 total launches manifested, 28 of them being commercial missions.
As Major General David D. Thompson, Vice Commander, Air Force Special Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, stated in a post-WGS-9 launch briefing, “The commercial spaceflight market is just blooming.
The Maj. Gen. specifically noted that the 45th Space Wing is doing everything possible to reduce the amount of time it takes to reconfigure assets between launches – something that will eventually allow the Cape to increase from its already packed schedule of 35 launches this year to an eventual goal of 48 launches per year in the “next couple of years.”
Of particular note toward this goal was Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing and Director, Eastern Range, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
Brig. Gen. Monteith specifically discussed how the 45th Space Wing has been working to increase its capabilities to support such a robust schedule.
Speaking after the Delta IV WGS-9 launch, Brig. Gen. Monteith stated, “This launch here represented the fourth launch this year. We launched just 66 hours ago the Falcon 9.
“We also have another launch, an Atlas, in 6 days, and then 3 days after that we have another Falcon with SES-10.
“So we will do four launches within three weeks. That’s just an incredible team effort.”
In many ways, the 45th Space Wing’s launch cadence increase plans are owed to SpaceX’s introduction of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS).
The AFTS debuted this year from LC-39A with the Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-10 mission to the ISS for NASA.
“When we talk about breaking barriers, a good example of that here is the new Autonomous Flight Termination System. It flew on the Falcon 9 on CRS-S10 and this last Falcon mission for Echostar that we had was the last time they plan on flying a traditional flight termination system.
Under a traditional FTS, there is a person “in the loop”.
As the Brig. Gen. explained, “We have now gone completely autonomous with that system. So with CRS-10 and all others with the AFTS, we’re able to reduce our operational footprint by 60% on day of launch.
“So we came down 96 people that don’t have to be sitting on console. And the cost to the customer is cut in half.
“We are driving out every bit of inefficiency that we have.”
Moreover, Brig. Gen. Monteith stated that this new AFTS combined with two operational SpaceX pads at Kennedy and the CCAFS will allow the company to launch two Falcon 9 rockets – one from 39A and one from SLC-40 – within 16 to 18 hours of each other.
“When pad 40 is up and operating, [it will] give us the capability of launching a Falcon from both pad 39A and pad 40 on the same day,” stated the Brig. Gen.
“Now if we did that and we had an Atlas V or a Delta IV launch, within 36 hours we could do three launches. So that’s how we’re going to get to 48 launches a year. It’s a great problem to have.”
In practicality, this goal of the 45th Space Wing would result in an ability to “launch consistently every single week of the year with just four weeks of downtime,” stated Brig. Gen. Monteith.
Importantly, the 45th Space Wing’s ability to handle the increasing demand for launches within a short time frame was demonstrated earlier this month.
Originally, when the WGS-9 mission was scheduled to launch on 8 March, SpaceX booked a static fire for the Echostar XXIII Falcon 9 on 7 March in a test window that extended less than 24 hours prior to the Delta IV’s planned launch.
This ability to rapidly support two different enterprises across the 45th Space Wing is a critical necessity to accommodating as many launches as the Air Force is looking at.
Moreover, this eye toward greater efficiency comes at a time when SpaceX and ULA are set to be joined by at least one new launch service provider in the coming years: Blue Origin.
“Pad 36 is being operated by Blue Origin,” notes Brig. Gen. Monteith. “They have started horizontal construction. We hope they’ll be starting vertical construction later this year.
“Their factory at Exploration Park is coming along, and they just signed a deal for 6 launches with OneWeb.
“So we anticipate that they will be flying in the next few years, and we will add them to our host of launch vehicle providers that will be flying here off the coast as we drive to 48 launches a year.”
The Brig. Gen. also touched on this year’s upcoming Orbital ATK use of the Cape and Pad 46 for a scheduled 15 July launch of a Minotaur 4 rocket with ORS 5.
Brig. Gen. Monteith noted that beyond the current Minotaur 4 launch, there are no other plans for Orbital ATK to use the CApe, but he did note that such further use was “not out of the realm of possibility” – noting last December’s launch of Pegasus off the L-1011 as a return of Pegasus to the 45th Space Wing’s jurisdiction for the first time in 13 years.
However, while a great deal of work has already taken place and will continue to occur to prepare the Cape for this major increase in launch cadence, the ability to meet this new maximum number of launches per year is – as always – dependent on ULA and SpaceX’s rocket fleets’ abilities to meet this new demand.
(Images: U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Chris Gebhardt for NASASpaceflight.com)