Military Launches Dominate Fla.’s First Post-shuttle Manifest

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Based on the dearth of launch activity at the Kennedy Space Center, it would be easy to assume that the U.S. space program is in hiatus. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Anthony Cotton begs to differ.

The head of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range points to the 11 rockets slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral in 2012, with the first half of the year dominated by military and national security launches.

“We are alive and well and we are in business here in Central Florida,” Cotton said at the National Space Club Florida Committee meeting in January. “We have a lot of work before us.”

The first launch of the year, a Delta 4 rocket carrying the next-generation Wideband Global Satcom 4 communications satellite, successfully lifted off Jan. 19.

The second, Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket, had been targeted to fly Feb. 7, but the mission — a demonstration cargo run to the international space station — was delayed to no earlier than March 20 so the company and NASA could resolve a spate of minor technical issues.

“There’s no show-stoppers,” SpaceX’s Scott Henderson, director of Mission Assurance and Integration, told Space News Feb. 7.

NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters Feb. 2 the March 20 date is “aggressive” and that the flight most likely would take place in April.

Either way, the Falcon 9 slips behind the planned Feb. 16 liftoff of the first Atlas 5 mission of the year. The rocket will be carrying the U.S. Navy’s first Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and designed to provide narrowband tactical communications for troops on the move.

Another Atlas 5 is scheduled to fly in April to put the military’s second Advanced Extremely High Frequency spacecraft into orbit. Two classified launches for the National Reconnaissance Office follow in June, one flying on an Atlas 5 and the other on a Delta 4 Heavy.

NASA missions dominate the Cape’s launch schedule for the second part of the year. If SpaceX’s test flight of the Dragon cargo capsule goes well, the company intends to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA to resupply the space station.

In August, an Atlas 5 is targeted to launch NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes. The two spacecraft are designed to fly in highly elliptical orbits where they will study the planet’s radiation belts and assess how they are influenced by solar activity.

NASA purchased another Atlas 5 rocket to put its TDRS-K communications and data relay satellite into orbit in December.

Also on the manifest are two launches for the Air Force. In September, a Delta 4 is scheduled to lift off with a GPS navigation satellite, the third Block 2F spacecraft in the network. The following month, the military plans to refly the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle that returned from a 7.5-month debut flight in December 2010. A second X-37B was launched March 5, 2011, and as of Feb. 10, remains on orbit.

Absent from the Eastern Range calendar are any launches for commercial customers, though that will be rectified in 2013. GeoEye is buying an Atlas 5 rocket to put its next-generation high-resolution Earth-imaging satellite, GeoEye-2, into orbit. And SpaceX’s 2013 launch calendar includes the company’s first mission to geostationary orbit — delivery of the SES-8 commercial communications satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Overall, the number of launches from Cape Canaveral expected in 2012 should top the 10 flights of 2011, a figure that includes NASA’s last three space shuttle missions. NASA is hoping to restart human spaceflights from the Cape within about five years, relying on commercial providers rather than government-owned vehicles.

“The final flight of the space shuttle marked an end to our current human spaceflight, but we will see it come back again,” Cotton said.

The 45th Space Wing’s busy launch manifest comes amidst proposed military budget cuts of $489 billion over the next 10 years.

“We’re feeling those effects, but like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, we’ll see through this, we’ll make it work. We’ll continue to do our mission safely, continue to assure we have access to space.”