45th Space Wing/Air Force discuss polar launch corridor from Florida

by Chris Gebhardt

When it was quietly announced in December 2017 that U.S. Space Command and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force at Cape Canaveral had certified a polar launch corridor from Florida’s east coast, the news was met with quiet regard.

While the newly reestablished polar launch corridor would open up options for launch providers from Florida, many wondered if anyone would actually opt to launch a polar mission from Florida and compete with a growing launch cadence and demand from the Florida spaceport instead of utilizing the optimally-placed and designed Vandenberg Air Force Base for polar launches.

Since 1960, nearly all U.S.-launched polar mission have occurred from Vandenberg – with some augmentation provided by Kodiak Island, Alaska.

The last polar mission from Florida launched in 1960; on that flight, a Thor rocket stage impacted into Cuba, reportedly killing a cow.

From that point on, the Florida polar launch corridor was discontinued, and all U.S. polar launch operations shifted to the U.S. west coast.

Since that 1960 mission, the only flight to come closest to a polar inclination from Florida was the STS-36 classified DoD (Department of Defense) flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis.

On that mission, Atlantis rolled herself onto a launch azimuth (compass heading) for a 57° inclination orbit – the highest inclination permitted from the Florida spaceport.

After Solid Rocket Booster separation just after 2 minutes into flight, Atlantis’ three SSMEs (Space Shuttle Main Engines) gimbaled, taking Atlantis through a dog-leg maneuver that shifted her trajectory more northward, lowered her azimuth, and increased her orbital inclination.

That maneuver saw Atlantis overfly Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Cape Cod, Massachusetts and portions of the Canadian maritime provinces.  

Normal land overflight restrictions were lifted for this flight, and Atlantis became the only U.S. human mission to overfly populated areas during launch.

But even all that effort only saw Atlantis insert into a 62° inclination orbit – well below polar orbit inclinations.

This unique and never-before or -again flown Shuttle launch trajectory was mandated as the classified satellite was too big for any other rocket to launch and had originally been planned as one of the Shuttle’s never-flown west coast missions from Vandenberg.

But in 2017, U.S. Air Force Space Command and the 45th Space Wing undertook a review of polar launch capability from Florida to determine what safety parameters launch providers would have to meet to fly those routes again.

The formal announcement of an available, single Florida polar launch corridor to the south occurred in December 2017.

But no one bit.

Polar launches continued at rapid pace in 2018 from Vandenberg – including United Launch Alliance’s launch of the NASA InSight lander to Mars, five of SpaceX’s 10 launches of Iridium NEXT satellites, Sun-Synchronous Orbiter-A on a SpaceX Falcon 9, and the SAOCOM-1A launch which became the first west coast Return To Launch Site landing of a Falcon 9.

None of those missions received even a cursory consideration of moving to Florida for launch.

At the time of SAOCOM-1A’s launch, its partner, SAOCOM-1B was slated to follow with a launch in 2019 from Vandenberg.

But then, earlier this month, an unexpected entry on a government website noted that SAOCOM-1B’s launch site had changed – with a formal request from SpaceX confirmed by NASASpaceflight’s Michael Baylor to move the polar launch from Vandenberg to Florida.

This mission, slated to launch No Earlier Than (NET) March 2020 from Florida would make SpaceX the first customer to utilize the newly reestablished Florida polar launch corridor.

And that’s not surprising as the Air Force’s mandated guidelines to fly the corridor require the rocket to have an Automated Flight Termination System (AFTS).

Of the three rocket families currently flying from Cape Canaveral, only the Falcons have AFTS – though all rockets (except NASA’s SLS) will have to have an AFTS by 2021 to meet range usage standards.

AFTS is also known as AFSS (Automated Flight Safety System) by the U.S. Air Force.  They are therefore used interchangeably below.

In response to why only AFTS rockets would be permitted to fly the polar launch corridor from Florida, the Air Force noted “AFSS allows the rocket to fly unconstrained from our command destruct coverage and without accommodation for legacy calculated processing response times.  

“The response of the on-board decision logic is faster than our legacy architecture.  The capability of the rocket is also important since it provides the necessary energy to make the required maneuvers to meet final orbital requirements.”

In general terms, a polar launch from Florida would see a rocket lift off from its pad and pitch downrange in a southeast to south-southeast trajectory, flying outward over the Atlantic to avoid land (Cape Canaveral and south Florida) and people before doglegging its trajectory more to the south to align with the needed orbital insertion targets for a specific mission.

This would see the rocket fly southward between the east coast of Florida and western Bahamian islands before flying over Cuba and out toward Central and South America.

“Any proposed launch trajectory is analyzed and crafted to avoid populated areas and ensure the necessary safety protection.  Any requested trajectory will meet the common [Air Force] and [Federal Aviation Administration] safety standards for the protection of people from the hazards of the launch,” added a U.S. Air Force spokesperson. 

In short, the polar launch corridor will function as the other established Florida launch corridors do – with a company needing to request the trajectory followed by the Air Force reviewing the request and performing all the necessary air, sea, land, and space safety assessment impacts, and ultimately approving the request.

What NASASpaceflight understands is different about the Florida polar corridor is that launch providers will have to show justification for wanting to use Florida for polar launches instead of Vandenberg – especially if that provider has an operational polar launch pad at Vandenberg.

Exactly what that justification can be is open to each request and will be reviewed by the Air Force.

To this end, the Air Force noted, “At this time, Air Force Space Command does not foresee a change to the launch capabilities that both ranges provide.  Each of our launch locations has specific advantages but, as an enterprise, they provide the necessary agility, resiliency, and capability to assure access to space.

“However, we are continually looking at innovative ways to meet mission requirements and take advantage of increasingly capable rockets and industry developments.  We are willing to assess any proposed launch trajectory for our customers, but at this time there are no plans to fly beyond our traditional capability.”

In this way, the polar launch corridor from Florida would readily be available to new Cape users that do not have any other launch location that would permit a polar launch.

Falcon 9 launches Iridium NEXT-4 from Vandenberg – Photo by Sam Sun/NSF

Existing providers with Vandenberg assets are also welcome to use the Florida polar corridor provided there is a mission-specific reason to do so.

And this connects with another major point the Air Force made to NASASpaceflight inquires about the new Florida polar launch corridor: it will not detract or take from Vandenberg what Vandenberg is ideally suited to permit.

According to the Air Force, “The Air Force does not foresee a move of Vandenberg’s launch capabilities.  Vandenberg represents a significant investment by the government and commercial launch providers and we expect the government, and our partners, will continue to leverage the capabilities of this location to meet launch needs.”

Lead Photo via Brady Kenniston for NSF.

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