It wasn’t that long ago that dozens of different programs were launching almost daily from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Before NASA developed the Merritt Island launch area, as many as 19 launch complexes were active at the Cape, some with multiple pads, launching U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army and NASA rockets. From 1957 to 1964 more than 100 launches left the Cape each year, reaching a peak in 1960 of between 198 and 206 launches, depending on whose records you trust. 

The people and systems at the Cape demonstrated what today would be considered impossible levels of cooperation, flexibility and responsiveness. One example is Aug. 14, 1959, when the Air Force launched Thor 204 from Complex 18B at 9 a.m., followed by a Navy Polaris from Complex 25B, then an Air Force Titan 1 from Complex 19 at 4 p.m., and finally a NASA Juno 2 from Complex 26B at 7:31 p.m.

It seems appropriate to ask how the Cape went from a capability to launch four separate missions from four separate pads in just over 10 hours to such limited capacity today the state of Florida is compelled to build a new launch site at Shiloh on Merritt Island and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. one on the Texas coast. 

The lack of capacity at the Cape is often attributed to the aging infrastructure of the Eastern Range, high cost or burdensome Air Force regulations, but these characterizations don’t hold up considering:

  • The Air Force has made steady progress improving range technology as evident by the phase-out of most C-band radar and conversion to GPS metric tracking for properly equipped boosters. The Air Force investment is continuing with the upcoming modernization of the Cape communications infrastructure that will deliver Cape customers Internet Protocol-based connectivity with a fivefold increase in capacity and faster reconfiguration time and the replacement of the telemetry receivers that will more than triple downlink rates and make possible desirable new data formats.
  • The Air Force and contractor teams have collaborated to operate more efficiently and drive down launch costs. Over the past five years the reimbursable range contractor cost has decreased by 35 percent per launch attempt and now represents less than 0.2 percent of a typical commercial mission cost. The much-anticipated Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract for Operations, Maintenance and Sustainment has the potential for additional cost reductions due to integration of the operations, maintenance and sustainment teams and increased commonality between Eastern and Western ranges.
  • The Air Force has streamlined and modernized many of the onerous policies, most notably in range safety. Requirements for mandatory tracking and range safety coverage have been substantially reduced, lowering cost and increasing launch availability.

But despite these improvements more needs to be done to make the Cape a capable and cost-effective launch site once again. To make Cape 2.0 a reality, the focus must shift to a joint operations model that provides a responsive and business-like environment to simultaneously meet the requirements of commercial launch providers, national security space and the exploration mission of NASA. 

Three game-changing improvements would make this achievable:

  • Replace the Universal Documentation System (UDS) with a modern paperless process so all customers can submit plans, match requirements to Cape services and rapidly receive approval for their missions. The UDS coordination cycle is an anachronism from the 1960s and the Air Force and its contractors have consistently achieved much faster planning cycles using modern mission planning software. A logical replacement for the UDS would be one of the widely used commercial customer relationship management software suites.
  • Overhaul the Cape scheduling process. All customers should be able to view a real-time integrated Cape schedule and resource availability remotely and submit and coordinate schedule requests like making an airline or hotel reservation. This should include a defined menu of services and corresponding prices so customers have precise knowledge of costs when requesting services. Notification of schedule commitments and changes would be emailed immediately so customers could quickly respond to changes in resource or schedule availability. Custom development is not required; commercial off-the-shelf solutions are readily available and widely used in more complex environments. The technology also exists to maintain the security of the Air Force network while providing access to external customers.
  • Add a second shift at the Eastern Range. Current staffing satisfies the capacity requirements for national security space missions with commercial customers left to use the excess capacity. As national security space launch rates declined so has the size of the technical team, leading to a longer turnaround time and the inability to respond to surge demands for closely spaced launches. A second shift of fewer than 100 technical workers would double current launch capacity and reduce turnaround time, and could be ready within six months, far less time and cost than any technology solution.     

Accommodating such changes is not beyond the capability or mission of the Air Force, as demonstrated by the high operations tempo and diverse customer base at the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Complex in Tennessee. Here the Air Force manages a world-class aeronautical technology facility that is heavily utilized by commercial and non-Air Force customers. The Arnold complex, by working to attract and serve a steady stream of reimbursable users, reduces its direct cost of ownership and preserves this critical national capability despite the declining Department of Defense budget. Likewise, the imperative to launch five to eight national security missions each year from Cape Canaveral shouldn’t be an impediment to increased joint use of the Cape, particularly when the DoD missions are themselves procured and managed as commercial launches.  

An ideal solution would be for the state of Florida to collaborate with the Air Force and NASA to fund, develop and deploy these much-needed improvements rather than build yet another launch complex at Shiloh. Refocusing the state investment would have a greater and more immediate economic enhancement factor by giving current and potential commercial customers confidence the Cape will have the capacity to meet their launch requirements, thus leading to more private investment and redevelopment of the underutilized infrastructure that already exists.  

We should resist the temptation to consider the Cape a historical site surrounding a few national security and NASA launch complexes. The nation has a significant investment in the Cape, and with a renewed commitment to collaboration, the Air Force, NASA and the state of Florida can make the Cape an attractive site for frequent space launch operations once again.  

Michael W. Maier is vice president of space system operations for PAE Mission Support Services in Cape Canaveral.