Efforts underway to ease Florida’s Space Coast launch congestion

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This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The good news for Florida’s Space Coast is that the launch industry is booming there once again. SpaceX has led a sharp increase in launch activity from Cape Canaveral, winning government and commercial business. Blue Origin recently completed a factory for its New Glenn orbital rocket just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, and plans to start launching from Cape Canaveral by the end of 2020. Other companies have also expressed interest in launching from the area in the coming years.

The bad news for Florida’s Space Coast is that this launch boom is creating some headaches for the companies involved, as well as for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. The projected increase in launches in the coming years, from SpaceX and Blue Origin as well as United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and others, is putting a strain on the infrastructure at the Cape. It has already led to conflicts about scheduling launches.

2 in 24 in the drive for 48

The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which operates Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Eastern Range, has been working to address that surge in launch demand. Those efforts fall under a strategy dubbed “Drive for 48,” for the ability to support 48 launches a year — an average of one a week, with two two-week maintenance periods — within five years.

However, launches aren’t evenly spaced. “That’s causing some interesting concerns for us as far as how we deconflict the range and how we schedule the range,” said Col. Z. Walter Jackim, vice commander of the 45th Space Wing, in a luncheon speech at the 45th Space Congress conference in Cape Canaveral Feb. 27.

Jackim said the Air Force is looking at how close together it can schedule launches on the range. In recent years, there have been two launches within three days of each other. “Right now we’re looking at the capability of two launches in 24 hours,” he said. “If we can constrain or reduce that time between launches, we’re going to continue to open up launch opportunities for more customers to come in.”

That’s possible now if at least one of the vehicles uses a new autonomous flight termination system that reduces the number of range assets required to support a launch. So far only SpaceX has incorporated that system on its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, but Jackim said there’s interest in getting other vehicles to adopt the technology.

In his luncheon speech, Jackim billed this goal as an aspiration, rather than a specific requirement. “Right now, we’re just using the 2-in-24 as a goal. It’s kind of a strawman that we’re chasing to see if we can do it,” he said.

Yet, even as Jackim was speaking in a hotel ballroom, range officials and others at the Cape were looking at one opportunity to try two launches in less than 24 hours. As ULA prepared an Atlas 5 for launch on the afternoon of March 1 carrying the GOES-S weather satellite, SpaceX sought approval from the range to launch a Falcon 9 carrying a communications satellite shortly after midnight the same day: a separation of about 16½ hours. SpaceX’s launch was previously scheduled for a few days earlier but postponed by a payload fairing issue.

Falcon Heavy launch on Feb. 6, 2018.
Falcon Heavy launch on Feb. 6, 2018. Credit: SpaceX

While the Air Force was interested in pursuing the back-to-back launches, ULA and NASA raised questions about it, according to industry sources. The timing of the launches meant that the Atlas 5, which typically rolls out to the pad the day before a launch, would be exposed while the Falcon 9 lifted off from its pad just a few kilometers away. That left the rocket at risk to potential damage in the event of a launch failure, as well as the possibility that the plume could contaminate the satellite payload.

At a pre-launch press conference for the GOES-S mission that afternoon at KSC, the NASA launch manager for the mission, Tim Dunn, said those issues put a stop to plans for the back-to-back launches. “Obviously, we would need some time to take a look at that to assess all the risks that would be incurred on GOES-S as well as the Atlas 5,” he said.

The Atlas 5 with GOES-S launched as planned on the afternoon of March 1, while SpaceX waited until after midnight on March 6 to launch its Falcon 9.

Jackim, returning to the conference to speak on a panel after that decision was announced, said the effort to try two launches in a day was worthwhile nonetheless. “We will continue to look at it, and we will get to two in 24,” he said.

Other range improvements

The effort to condense gaps between launches is not the only initiative at the Eastern Range to increase its throughput. Jackim said there are other efforts underway to deal with two of the most common reasons for launch delays: range safety violations and weather.

“As we’re going to 48, we can’t have scrubs unnecessarily,” he said. “It’s very important that we preserve our launch opportunities.”

For range safety, that means a shift in what happens when ships or planes enter restricted zones. An example he gave was a when a tugboat with a two-person crew was spotted in restricted waters ahead of a launch. In the past, such a ship would be treated the same as a cruise ship with thousands on board, but now the Air Force is looking at each ship, and the risk to those on board, individually.

“We went from measuring the risk of hitting the boat to actually causing some sort of casualty,” he said. In that example, the launch could proceed.

The Air Force is also introducing new weather tools to provide a three-dimensional view of weather conditions. That can help meteorologists and launch controllers better see how close any lightning in the area would be to a rocket’s launch path, compared to the current approach of setting limits on how close any lightning can be to the launch site.

Another initiative seeks to modernize the range, from decades-old electronics used for telemetry to scheduling tools that rely on whiteboards. That effort is called the Eastern Range Program for Innovative Change, or EPIC.

“Actually, we chose the acronym before we figured out what it stands for,” admitted Col. Burton Catledge, operations group commander for the 45th Space Wing, during a panel discussion at the Space Congress Feb. 28.

The goal, though, is to live up to that acronym by making sweeping changes to the range infrastructure. EPIC includes about three dozen different projects, such as mobile telemetry units that can be moved from pad to pad as needed and online databases that allow launch providers to better estimate range costs.

Another part of EPIC is developing a tool dubbed the “Launch Pad”: a collection of apps for a tablet that can handle all key range operations. “I expect in less than a year that you’ll be able to command and control the entire Eastern Range with this tablet,” he said.

Feeling Blue

While those improvements can increase the number of launches at the Cape, companies are finding other challenges with developing launch sites there.

“While many users are great, and you realize efficiencies, when you’re trying to make a business case, many users can actually slow you down,” said Scott Henderson, orbital launch site director at Blue Origin. “Not only is the infrastructure and the overhead more taxed, but the day-to-day operations tempo gets impacted.”

Atlas 5 launch on March 1, 2018. Credit: United Launch Alliance
Atlas 5 launch on March 1, 2018. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Blue Origin is currently building a launch facility for New Glenn at Launch Complex 36, but Henderson said that construction is affected by other spaceport activities, particular on what are designated as “critical days” around the time of a launch. “Part of building is that you actually have to put a shovel into the ground,” he said. “On a critical day you cannot break the surface of the ground.”

“In 10 of the last 12 months, over 50 percent of the work days have been critical days,” Henderson said. “It’s nearly impossible to build a project under those kinds of constraints. We have to figure out a way.”

He added that the basic infrastructure available at Cape Canaveral left something to be desired. “We are investing way too much money in what I would call core systems: new substations, pipelines, trying to figure out where commodities are going to come from,” he said. “That’s less money that’s invested into the really hard work of developing new and innovative launch systems.”

Competition

Henderson noted that Blue Origin picked Florida as the site to both build and launch New Glenn after an intense competition. “Florida won a hard battle to get Blue Origin’s business,” he said, beating out Texas, Georgia and even North Carolina. “They were going to change the license plates to say ‘First in Flight Again.’”

That competition is on the minds of state officials as they seek to attract more customers to the spaceport. “We’ve captured more of the commercial market back to the United States,” said Dale Ketcham, chief of strategic alliances for Space Florida, during a conference panel discussion March 1. SpaceX, he noted, has done that by carrying out commercial launches that once took place overseas.

However, he added that SpaceX, after having invested many millions of dollars upgrading Launch Complex 39A and repairing Space Launch Complex 40, is focusing its investments elsewhere. “They’re now all going to Texas to build a commercial launch site in Brownsville,” he said. “Our job is try and keep that from happening again.”
Ketcham is also concerned about Camden County, Georgia’s plans for a commercial launch site. “Georgia is prepared to offer a commercial launch site that is going to be as attractive as Brownsville was, maybe more so,” he warned.
“We’ve got to continue to innovate,” he said. “If you’re not innovating and continuing to be competitive, you’re dying. You might not know it, but you’re dying.” In other words, there’s always the danger the boom times could go bust again.