Profile: U.S. Air Force Col. Mark Owen, Commander, 45th Space Wing; Director, Eastern Launch Range

It wasn’t all that long ago that the telecommunications boom had some optimists suggesting that Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., would be hosting 40 to 50 commercial satellite launches a year by now. But the boom went bust around 2001, and that plus the entry of low-cost Russian and Ukrainian vehicles into the market have marginalized the Cape’s role in commercial space.

That hasn’t left Air Force Col. Mark Owen with nothing to do, however. Upgrading the range, which features some equipment dating to the dawn of the space age, remains a top priority, even if the effort has a history of being deferred by higher-ups at the Pentagon. There likely is less pressure these days from the commercial sector to upgrade the range, but Cape Canaveral isn’t getting out of the business of launching military and civilian scientific satellites anytime soon.

Owen also is trying to lay the groundwork for emerging technologies, such as reusable launchers, and is cognizant of the Air Force’s responsibility to help inspire young people to choose careers in the space field.

A career space cadet who has been selected for promotion to brigadier general, Owen spoke recently with Space News Editor Lon Rains and staff writer Jeremy Singer.

What do you need to do at the range to prepare for the possible advent of reusable launch vehicles?

Typically we’re pretty good on ascent. And so the models that the service has now in ascent — launch corridors, impact limit lines — we have criteria that, once violated, move us to accept the risk or mitigate the risk by terminating the vehicle.

Re-entry is going to be a little different. The Federal Aviation Administration is clearly in charge of the airspace up to 12,000 meters. Between 12,000 and 18,000 meters is an area we haven’t really contemplated for operations very much, save for the space shuttle, but now you have Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, and those ilk.

I don’t think the government has contemplated that 12,000- to 18,000-meter altitude, and if they come in below 12,000 meters, what sort of operating parameters are going to be safety features such that if they violate it, how are we going to mitigate risk?

There are consequences to destroying the vehicle on its way back. Someone is going to try to get their hardware back, potentially with a scientific or military payload on board. They’re going to want to get it back.

What is driving your look at reusable launchers, given that the Air Force seems pretty far from developing one?

The Air Force is the executive agent for the launch ranges, so that’s where we’re being confronted with it. For example, Kistler with the flyback stage, that’s where we’re first being confronted with having to develop methods, modes and procedures to deal with the reusable community, and how we think about it, participate and govern.

The second thing is that we do have a responsibility under the Commercial Space Launch Act to facilitate commercial entities . I think the Air Force is going to monitor and watch because as these systems mature, we’re going to want to take advantage of the operational advantage that they provide. We’re going to want to play too. We’re probably going to want to buy those types of technologies for military purposes.

As companies demonstrate systems that don’t need near the type of support infrastructure as the ranges provide today, and they demonstrate the ability to do it from anywhere on the globe, that certainly has a measure of attractiveness to it.

Keep in mind from a military mindset that having a static, difficult-to-defend, single-point-failure launch range is of particular concern, and if we can get into space through a different method and relieve ourselves of some of the restrictions of the launch range, that would be of some attractiveness, don’t you think?

How are you doing on modernizing infrastructure at Cape Canaveral?

I think what we’re trying to achieve most of all is continued performance with good reliability and good availability, and it’s increasingly hard to do with telemetry, optics, radar and command-destruct systems that are reaching into 40-50 years old. That’s our principal concern — to be able to maintain and sustain capability.

Our modernization contract was awarded in an era of acquisition reform, in which — at least in my personal view — the government tended to place too much responsibility on the contractor to develop requirements. That resulted in the program’s reconfiguration or restructuring throughout its life, and shifting funding around because we found that we were essentially paying the contractor to do requirements development at the expense of getting end items out the pipe.

That notwithstanding, we have achieved great advances here at the Cape with our network. Instead of having copper wire from point-to-point, we’ve got a fiber network and associated with that is improved processing. We process higher volumes of data and process it at faster speeds.

We’re also now approving some of the end items, like the radar down at Antigua that we’re enhancing with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Labs. Lincoln Labs demonstrated a capability of refurbishing radars from the inside out, so we’ll get a brand-new radar down there. It won’t look like that from the outside, but all the guts are new and improved down in Antigua, and we plan on doing that for a number of other sources.

What are some of the things you have in the 2006 budget request?

We’re working through improving our automated planning and scheduling systems, which is proving to be more difficult than we anticipated.

This planning and scheduling function is network based. We have a universal documentation system in which we match and marry range capabilities to users’ requirements. In that process, we want to have an open and accessible architecture.

We’re finding out that there are a lot of security requirements with a military system and a military range, and satisfying the customers, and the security demands is sometimes at odds. We’re trying to work our way through that.

What has changed in base security since Sept. 11 ?

We certainly made a substantial change in the way people access the Cape, both in the virtual domain and the physical domain, after 9/11.

I’m trying to make it reasonable. There are some practices we have that are awfully restrictive, and as the years go by after 9/11 I’m looking for prudent ways to loosen those up so we can improve some of the access to the Cape. For example, we have a lot of heritage there, such as facilities that were key to the Atlas development, and a pad that was part of the Apollo 1 disaster.

People want access. In addition to our charter on supporting launch activities, to a certain extent we share a responsibility to inspire and educate. The post-9/11 environment is not letting us really satisfy that agenda, so I’m trying to find ways to improve access at the Cape for the students of today who will be the engineers of tomorrow.

Their ability to get on the Cape and see where we took our first steps toward space illustrates what I’m trying to do here — to balance security with operations.