Eastern Range ready to return with two key launches after stand down

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With a busy year already in the books, the Eastern and Western Ranges in the United States are readying for the next salvo of missions from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance following a stand down of launch operations to provide time for maintenance.  Specifically for the Eastern Range, the stand down period allowed the Air Force to complete more than 70 operations that will enable the Range to maintain its commitment and support to its users.

Eastern Range maintenance and stand down:

While not usually visible to the public, this year’s first semi-annual multi-day stand down period on the Eastern Range became a much more noticeable affair thanks to SpaceX’s rapid fire pace of missions which from 1 May through 5 July averaged an impressive one launch every two weeks off of LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

With this rapid pace of missions, the last month has been a newly strange time on the Eastern Range with a total launch drought of 39 days (assuming a 13 August launch of SpaceX’s CRS-12 mission to the Space Station) seeming like a time of “nothing’s happening.”

Indeed, that could not be further from the truth.

While part of the launch drought is due to pacing and mission order, with United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) and NASA’s TDRS-M mission delaying from 3 Aug, the stand down period – known as recapitalization – was initiated by the U.S. Air Force and the Eastern Range itself so that critical maintenance work could be performed on Range assets.

“Eastern Range recapitalization is used as a predictable pause in operations for range users and the range itself so we can perform semi-annual maintenance requirements encompassing critical engineering projects, more intrusive maintenance actions and infrastructure work,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing Commander.

“During recapitalization, we can perform maintenance and sustainment actions not possible during our busy launch schedule that includes not only launches, but daily pre-launch major milestone operations.

“The planning process is collaborative in nature and includes all range users in determining the dates for range closure.”

This collaborative nature became a prime talking point for those eagerly following the Intelsat 35e launch by SpaceX in July.

An initial launch attempt on 2 July was halted by a faulty ground computer at T-9 seconds – pushing the next attempt to 3 July.

When that attempt was stopped by the same ground computer at T-9 seconds again, SpaceX opted to forgo a launch attempt on 4 July in favor of additional testing of the ground computer to ensure the issue didn’t repeat a third time.

This caused some to wonder when the hard cutoff for Range down time was and how far into July SpaceX could continue to attempt to launch Intelsat 35e.

In the end, the 5 July attempt was a success, and according to Brig. Gen. Monteith, the range down period began the very next day.

“The first Eastern Range recapitalization period of 2017 was conducted July 6-18.  More than 70 planned tasks were accomplished 26% quicker as opposed to working these items around an ‘active range,’” noted the Brig. Gen.

Of the work performed in the 12-day stand down period of recapitalization, some of these efforts included work to the Range Communications Facility Corridor Military Construction and replacing the uninterruptable power supply at the Falcon launch support facility.

Moreover, the Digital Range Communications Switch enhancement projects and server re-host for the 45th weather squadron were also completed.

“This period also allowed us to focus on maintaining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station infrastructure as well as training and testing our crews so we can continue keeping pace with our high launch ops tempo,” notes Brig. Gen. Monteith.

This work is not only necessary to the continued smooth operation of the Range, but also represents a concerted effort to avoid unanticipated issues and outages at the Range.

“Range recap has proven successful in our ability to plan longer periodic, more intrusive, maintenance and sustainment projects on a stable schedule.

“Not only does range recap allow us to take care of our mission critical assets, but it supports Air Force Space Command’s commitment to sustaining the world’s premier spaceport of choice as our team drives to executing 48 launches a year.

The semi-annual maintenance ability to maintain Range readiness was seen last year with 2016 being the “healthiest” in range history at Cape Canaveral with 34 consecutive days of no significant instrumentation issues.

Launch schedule shuffle:

While the down period prevented SpaceX from launching missions, it did not stop them from getting some needed work accomplished at LC-39A – mainly fixing the ground computer that twice stopped the Intelsat 35e countdown and removing a significant portion of the no-longer-needed Shuttle era’s RSS while prepping for their first mission following the Range closure.

The CRS-12 flight, now scheduled to launch from LC-39A at 12:57 EDT on Sunday 13 August, will serve to end the 39 day launch drought in the U.S.

In fact, SpaceX has advanced the CRS-12 launch date from 14 August and in turn has also advanced the static fire date from 9 to 8 August.

The original mission that was to have been the first off the ground from the Range stand down was another NASA mission, TDRS-M.  Up until last week, that was still the case, with TDRS-M originally maintaining its status as being more important – in terms of launch order – over CRS-12.

However, when it became known that the replace and repair option for TDRS-M’s omni S-band antenna would take 10 days longer than originally expected, with a launch not possible until at least 20 August, priority in the launch order shifted to CRS-12 – which at that point was targeting 14 August for launch.

With CRS-12 now at the top of the pecking order, SpaceX and NASA reviewed their schedules and determined it was possible to pull the mission one day back to the right to the 13th.

Likewise, as TDRS-M repairs progressed, NASA realized that the craft would actually be ready by 18 August, not the 20th. However, the TDRS-M date remains “Under Review”.

With CRS-12 now set for 13 August and TDRS-M for 18 August, the knock on effect to the launch manifest began to bear out on both coasts.

The first major shift occurred on the Western Range, with ULA having to move the 14 August scheduled launch of the NROL-42 mission by nearly a month to 11 September.

The shift of NROL-42’s launch on an Atlas V 541 from SLC-3E did not impact SpaceX’s plan for the Formosat 5 satellite launch for Taiwan’s National Space Organization – which held steady on its planned 24 August launch date.

Back on the Eastern Range, the realignments of CRS-12 and TDRS-M did not have an effect on the Minotaur 4 launch on 25/26 August with the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program 5 mission, also called SensorSat.

However, the first flight of the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane aboard the Falcon 9 did move from its 28 August target to 7 September – with processing notes acquired by L2 noting that the timeline to a 7 September launch is tight and had nothing to do with CRS-12’s slip.

However, exactly which pad OTV-5 will now launch from is unknown.

Recent statements by Elon Musk of a planned November debut for SpaceX’s heralded Falcon Heavy rocket point to SLC-40 being on track for an August completion – making a 7 September OTV-5 mission a contender for first flight from SLC-40 after the AMOS-6 static fire conflagration.

Regardless of the pad OTV-5 uses, ULA is now expected to return on 25 September for the NROL-52 launch from the Cape, delayed in the wake of TDRS-M from 31 August.

This will then be followed two days later by SpaceX’s SES-11/EchoStar 105 mission on 27 September.

(Images: SpaceX, Air Force, NASA, and Chris Gebhardt and Brady Kennison for NASASpaceFlight.com)

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