When U.S. Air Force officials talk about the need for reliable access to space for U.S. satellites, much of the work they are talking about is overseen by the service’s 30th Space Wing.
The 30th Space Wing serves as the service’s West Coast launch organization at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and handles all launches to polar-orbit. East Coast
launches are overseen by the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
However, launching satellites is not the only item on the agenda for the 30th Space Wing, according to Col. Steve Tanous, the wing commander. The wing also oversees ICBM test launches, as well as the launch of targets and interceptors for the Missile Defense Agency, Tanous said during a Feb. 8 interview.
The 30th Space Wing is part of Air Force Space Command, and reports to Lt. Gen. William Shelton, the commander of the 14th Air Force. Shelton is also the commander of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command-Space, which is located at Vandenberg as well.
While the 30th Space Wing is responsible for launching satellites, the Joint Functional Component Command handles operational command and control once the payloads reach orbit, Tanous said.
Operationally Responsive Space
The Air Force took its first formal step towards launching small satellites on short notice with the launch of TacSat-2 in December 2006, but Tanous believes that the 30th Space Wing has been preparing for this mission for years. The Minotaur rocket,
built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is expected to play a key role in the Operationally Responsive Space effort, as it is less expensive than larger rockets like the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) family, and requires significantly less call-up time and resources at the range, he said.
The 30th Space Wing has overseen the launch of five Minotaur rockets from Vandenberg, and assists with launches of the rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia
, Tanous said.
The Falcon 1 rocket, which is built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is the other rocket the military has considered for the Operationally Responsive Space effort. While the company has maintained a pad for the Falcon 1 at Vandenberg since 2003, that lease
likely will expire this year, and the company is in discussions with the wing about using Space Launch Complex-4 for its Falcon 9 rocket, an EELV-class vehicle currently under development, Tanous said.
Elon Musk, founder and chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies, said
the company lacks the business case to operate a Falcon 1 pad at Vandenberg at the moment.
The company would need “a compelling economic reason” to conduct Falcon 1 launches from Vandenberg, “such as several flights where the customer insists on launching from there,” Musk said in a written response to questions. If that were to occur, the company could modify an old Titan 2 pad at Space Launch Complex 4 for the Falcon 1 if the value of the launches justified the investment, he said.
As the Air Force began using the
family of rockets for most of its space launch needs in 2003, it also allowed Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., who later joined together in a joint venture for government space launch work called United Space Alliance, to own the launch pads for their rockets.
The Air Force made the decision to shift more responsibility at the ranges to the contractors during a time when it has been reducing the number of active duty personnel on its roster, and has not run into problems with the new relationship, which involves the wing monitoring, rather than managing work at the pads, thus far, Tanous said.
The service continued its streak of successful launches of operational satellites during this period, which now stands at 56 in a row, an achievement that Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, has touted in speeches and interviews.
A key element of that success is having members of the wing watching closely at every step of the process to ensure that the rocket, payload, launch pad
and range systems are all ready, Tanous said. The wing also keeps an eye on weather conditions that could not only pose a risk to the payload or rocket, but also possibly spread toxic propellant if something goes awry and the booster must be destroyed, he said.
“It’s just making sure folks are doing the right thing all the time,” Tanous said. “I think we have the best airmen in the Air Force right here at Vandenberg making sure that’s happening. Mission assurance is people in the right place at the right time making sure that things are as they should be, and if they see something wrong, they know how to make it right.”
While the 30th Space Wing has overseen the launches of 4 rockets from Vandenberg, it is preparing for its first Atlas 5 launch, which
currently is expected to take place
Feb. 26, Tanous said. That rocket will carry a classified payload.
Atlas 5 launches will take place from Space Launch Complex-3, which was built for the smaller Atlas 3 rocket. has spent two years and roughly $300 million modifying the pad to handle the Atlas 5, which required extending the tower used to house the rocket during construction and building a new 250-ton platform to handle the weight of the Atlas 5, according to an Air Force news release dated Feb. 4.
also may be involved with an orbital flight test of the X-37 prototype space plane to be launched late this year, Tanous said. The X-37 prototype is set to launch on an Atlas 5 rocket in December, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Web site.
The X-37, which is built by Boeing Co., may take off from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida
and land at Vandenberg, which
already has hosted runway testing for the vehicle, he said.
The wing has about 2,900 uniformed military personnel, 2,800 contractors, and 1,300 civilian employees, Tanous said. About 92 percent of the wing’s positions are filled.
Keeping civilian positions filled can be a challenge in part due to the high cost of living in the area, Tanous said. Those positions are currently 84 percent filled, and the wing has efforts including working with California Polytechnic State University
to attract new graduates, he said.
Another manning challenge is the deployment of troops to Iraq, which can take a significant number of people away simultaneously, he said. There are rarely fewer than 150 uniformed personnel from the wing deployed at once, and this year could see periods with around 400 overseas at the same time, he said.
Those deployments most heavily deplete security personnel, sometimes forcing the 30th Space Wing to turn to other organizations at Vandenberg to help with its force protection needs, Tanous said.
The wing’s 2008 budget currently stands at approximately $200 million. That figure could rise significantly over the course of the year, as the wing’s budget
s generally have in the past and as new projects are added to its agenda, Tanous said.
One example of work that is expected to take place this year, but currently is not
accounted for in the 2008 budget, is the construction of a new satellite control station intended to replace a similar facility that is closing at Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale, Calif., as part of the implementation of the last Base Realignment and Closure commission recommendations, Tanous said.
That ground station will be operated by personnel from the 50th Space Wing, though the 30th wing is handling construction, Tanous said. The 30th Space Wing broke ground on the new ground station in late January, and construction is expected to be complete in October 2009, he said.
Other projects that are not yet part of the 2008 budget but
likely will take place this year include work like environmental clean up and disposal of unexploded ordinance, Tanous said.
Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Col. Stephen M. Tanous
Air Force Space Command
Oversees launches for satellites, ICBMs, and missile defense targets and interceptors.
Designated 30th Space Wing on Nov. 19, 1991.