45th Space Wing gears up for surge in launch activity

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The launch of the Air Force AEHF-4 satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket will be Brig. Gen. Schiess' first national security mission as the commander of the world's busiest spaceport.

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. — The launch early Wednesday of a U.S. Air Force $1.8 billion communications satellite will be Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess’  first mission as launch decision authority.

Schiess was sworn in Aug. 23 as commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, headquartered at Patrick Air Force Base. Since then, SpaceX launched a commercial satellite from the range, but the Advanced EHF satellite known as AEHF-4 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket will be his first national security mission as the commander of the world’s busiest spaceport. The wing is responsible to ensure public safety during every launch from Cape Canaveral or Kennedy Space Center.

“It’s good to be back here,” Schiess told SpaceNews on Monday.

Schiess was the commander of the 45th Operations Group at Cape Canaveral from 2012 to 2014. Later he served as director of space forces at U.S. Air Forces Central Command in Qatar, as commander of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, and most recently as senior military assistant to the undersecretary of the Air Force at the Pentagon.

Space is his passion, Schiess said. “As a captain I worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base launching Delta 2 rockets.”

The 45th Space Wing made headlines when Schiess’ predecessor Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith started what he called the “drive to 48,” or 48 launches per year. Schiess said he plans to pick up where Monteith left off. “We’re at 20 launches, and we have five on the schedule for the rest of the year,” he said. “We’re hoping for 24 so we can say we got half way to the drive to 48.”

It has been a steep climb. “Twenty-three is the most we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “Twenty-four would be great.”

With more commercial activity and new launch vehicles entering the national security market, the range has to operate faster and more efficiently, said Schiess. “Air Force Space Commander Gen. Jay Raymond is pushing us to look at ways to be more responsive.” Broadly speaking, “space is becoming more and more important, it’s being talked about at the highest levels.”

Atlas 5 rocket on its way to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceNews
Atlas 5 rocket on its way to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceNews

One priority will be to upgrade the range infrastructure, Schiess said. A recent improvements in the use of mobile vans to receive telemetry and instrumentation data from satellites. Those same vans previously has been used to monitor the electromagnetic spectrum in advance of a launch to make sure transmitters in the area — such as cruise ships — were not using frequencies that could harm a satellite.“The same vans can get upgraded equipment to receive telemetry and instrumentation,” said Schiess. The benefit is that big antennas can be removed from ranges, reducing infrastructure and manpower costs.

Another goal is to increase the use of autonomous flight safety systems, a technology that SpaceX already has deployed for its launches at Cape Canaveral. “That’s the future,” said Schiess. “That’s where we want everyone to go to. It makes for a more responsive range because we don’t have to bring out as many assets to do range safety. ULA and others will move towards that too.”

More commercial activity
The state of Florida’s spaceport authority, known as Space Florida, has been a longtime partner of the 45th Space Wing.

“We are planning infrastructure on the Cape to support 100 to 200 launches a year,” Space Florida’s president and CEO Frank DiBello told SpaceNews on Monday.

The strategy for several years has been to attract rocket manufacturers to set up shop along Florida’s space coast, DiBello said.

“We went after other activities so we can get beyond just launching stuff,” he said. “This has always been the nation’s launch site, predominantly populated by companies that were manufacturing rockets elsewhere and flying them to Florida. Today more of the hardware is being built here. It makes integration, refurbishment easier.”

What used to the Orbiter Processing Facility 3 is being transitioned into a modern assembly line where Boeing is making the Starliner commercial crew vehicle that will fly astronauts to the International Space Station next year. Florida pumped $35 million into an older operations and checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center where now Lockheed Martin is building the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle for NASA.

Space Florida will own and operate an 850,000 square foot building where commercial rocket maker Blue Origin will manufacture the New Glenn, a launch vehicle that will compete for national security launches.

Space Florida also is working to attract the burgeoning small launch industry. It signed an agreement with NASA a couple of years ago to take over the launch and landing facility where the Space Shuttle used to land. Space Florida inked a 30-year deal to turn the facility into a multiuser spaceport. Target customers would be companies like Sierra Nevada and Virgin Orbit that operate smaller vehicles.