As director of the Eastern Range and commander of the 45th Space Wing, Brig. Gen. Anthony Cotton oversees launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the United States’ primary launch site. The job not only entails making sure military satellites can reach their destinations in orbit, but also that the range is readily available for use by NASA and commercial companies.
It’s a juggling act that Cotton, who previously served as a launch squadron commander at the Cape as well as the range director of operations, is eager to take on.
“I have seen incredible change,” said Cotton, 49.
He points to the Oct. 7 launch of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket, a commercially purchased mission for NASA that was wedged in between two military launches at the Cape.
“In 2004, would we have done that? Absolutely not. We would have said, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to risk it because this DoD [Department of Defense] launch might slip and you’ll be in our window,’” Cotton said.
Cotton spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz during a recent tour and media open house at Cape Canaveral.
Your schedule shows 16 launches at Cape Canaveral in 2013. Are you maxed out?
We can probably handle around 25 missions per year in our current configuration.
Is it hard for companies to operate on a military range?
There are some perceptions here that I don’t necessarily know are true. We have open arms to allow customers to come in. There are certain criteria that they are going to have to meet because ultimately within my fence line I’m going to be responsible for any damages that could happen, but we can work through those issues.
A good example is SpaceX’s last launch. They had requested that they move their launch date. It was in between two national launches. We have worked tirelessly over the past dozen years, and it took me 30 minutes maybe to talk to my team and say, “OK, we need to see if we can slide a commercial launch, and then turn the range, and then turn the range once again for a national system launch.” By the end of day, I picked up the phone and shot a note to SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk and said, “Sir, we could support.” So there is room for that to happen.
How much does a commercial company like SpaceX reimburse the Air Force for use of the range and all the support services?
It’s something like $600,000 to $700,000. We haven’t finalized that number yet for the last launch. That includes turning the range, all the instrumentation and radar, and the planning for all that.
Do you expect that non-U.S. personnel and hardware will have easier access to the Cape under the new export-control provisions in the defense authorization bill that President Barack Obama signed into law Jan. 3?
A couple of things are going to happen. For example, SpaceX, which is leasing Complex 40 from the U.S. government, has foreign customers. Thailand’s Thaicom satellite is on the manifest for this year, so we allow that to happen today. If you’re talking about facilities that I own and operate, I don’t have data to provide you on what the National Defense Authorization Act verbiage is going to do to change access to facilities that right now have DoD shields on them.
From my perspective as wing commander, we’re looking very hard at understanding how to ease that. I have conversations with Space Florida all the time on what are the tension points for allowing commercial entities to come to the base and offer launch services. When Space Florida Chief Executive Frank DiBello talks about what he wants to do with Complex 36 and Complex 46, whether or not his customer is a foreign or an American entity, I need to be able to have processes in place where I can help him be successful and not deter him. Those are the things that we’re currently working.
The same could be said for SpaceX as they transition to get certification to launch National Security Space payloads. Right now, their primary customer is NASA and they have a commercial customer. The majority of their launches will happen from Eastern Range at Complex 40. We’re working day in and day out to ensure we help them succeed, that we’re not the person perturbing them getting their customers on the pad and getting the launches off.
How will your operations here be impacted by DoD budget issues?
I’ve already planned for that. We average around $375 million a year here.
Is that pretty steady?
It has declined, but to be frank, the job of a wing commander is also to try to find efficiencies. Efficiencies can be how much is the lawn contract and do you really need to cut the grass every week or can you cut the grass every two weeks and lo and behold save me $200,000? Little things like that.
As for budget effects on range operation, we’re not really seeing that. We’re maintaining status quo on that because mission critical items are getting funded for us through headquarters. That’s today.
With orbital launches starting soon at Wallops Island in Virginia, do you think that will be a competitor?
I don’t think so. I think there’s a place for light payloads, the Taurus and smaller-type launchers. But Space Florida, once they start launch operations, I think they can lure some customers down this way to use Complex 46. That’s what they want to use it for, to be able to have a smaller booster capacity.
What do you think about Florida’s plans to develop a commercial launch pad north of the shuttle launch pads at Kennedy Space Center?
I own a national asset which I think I has a lot of capacity and capability to handle the need, but I understand where the state is going as far as wanting to have an opportunity to own a spaceport of its own.
Would I have any authorities over that? The answer is no. It would have to be a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed spaceport, so it would not fall under the umbrella of the Eastern Range.
Space Florida owns two pads on our complex already. They have Complex 36 — that used to be the old Atlas pad — and they have Complex 46. So there is opportunity for Space Florida to utilize those two pads right now.
By the time you’re reassigned, what would you like to see out here? How would you like to leave the wing?
I want people to know what the mission is here so they understand what the Air Force provides for this region. When I walk around and I hear folks asking, “So what do you do?” and I say I’m the commander of the 45th Space Wing and I run the Cape, they say, “Oh, you work for NASA,” or the response is, “Yeah, did you see that NASA launch last week?” or, “So what do you do now that the space shuttle’s not around?”
There is an Eastern Range that is run by the United States Air Force on behalf of the country that has the capacity to do commercial, it has the capacity to do Trident submarine missile launches, it has the capacity to do what will soon be known as “heritage” Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.
I got it that folks are uneasy because of the huge downturn with so many folks that were with the shuttle program, but that does not mean the space program is gone from this coast. That’s kind of my message.
Maybe your rockets need Twitter feeds.
Hey, I talk to these public affairs folks to figure out how do we think outside the box and make it so folks understand that things are still happening here on average of about once every 45 days. Almost every month we’re launching rockets out here. There’s still a viable space mission here on this coast.