WASHINGTON — A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a U.S. Space Force communications satellite is set to lift off March 26 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Space Force’s 45th Space Wing that operates the range is working with a reduced staff in an effort to practice social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. But launches at the Cape will go off as planned, wing commander Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess told reporters March 24.
“We don’t see any launches being delayed at this time,” said Schiess.
The guidance from the Pentagon is that commanders have to ensure the safety of personnel but the work must continue, and that also applies to contractors. “We haven’t had any issues with any contractor saying they can’t continue to do the mission at this time,” said Schiess.
The wing has implemented telework and crews are working in rotating shifts to prevent group gatherings, he said. “But launches can’t be teleworked.”
About 300 people will be needed on site on Thursday for the launch of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency-6 (AEHF-6) satellite, said Schiess. That’s about the minimum staffing required to support a national security launch by an Atlas 5 rocket that does not have an automated flight termination system and requires more people to operate radars and other tracking equipment.
A smaller staff of about 200 is needed for SpaceX Falcon 9 launches, Schiess said, because the vehicle has an autonomous flight safety system — an on-board computer that automatically destroys the rocket before it threatens people or property.
Whether it’s a national security, civil or commercial mission, teams of equipment operators, weather and communications technicians, engineers, environmental and safety personnel are needed on the ground, said Schiess.
Military or contractor personnel who would typically attend launches for training or as observers are not being allowed, and public viewings have been closed for now, which eliminates the need to deploy security staff. Reporters are still allowed on base to broadcast and photograph launches.
Schiess said there are about 48 to 50 launches on the manifest for 2020, seven of which have already taken place. “We are continuing to schedule launches,” he said.
Schiess confirmed that the only delay so far is a Falcon 9 launch of Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar imaging satellite which had been scheduled for March 30. That mission has been put on hold because the payload won’t be ready on time. Due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions Argentine personnel is not able to get to the Cape and prepare the satellite for launch.