WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the company’s sixth batch of Starlink satellites on April 16 from Kennedy Space Center. The launch will be carried out with a lean crew and social distancing measures, said Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing that oversees the Florida space coast ranges.
During a call with reporters April 9, Schiess had to defend the decision to allow the launch to go forward amid the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this week, the U.S. Space Force announced it would postpone until late June the launch of a GPS 3 satellite — also on a Falcon 9 — that was scheduled for late April to minimize the potential of COVID-19 exposure to the launch crew and operators.
Schiess said that under the current health emergency, the decision to support a launch is considered on a case-by-case basis. The Starlink launch is less labor intensive than a national security mission like GPS, he said. With a leaner crew it’s easier to implement physical separation at launch facilities, said Schiess.
Another consideration is that the 60-satellite Starlink payload is owned by SpaceX so government personnel are not involved in getting it ready for launch. A GPS launch would require more government employees on base to manage the payload preparation and post-launch checkouts.
The Falcon 9 has an autonomous flight safety system — an on-board computer that automatically destroys the rocket before it threatens people or property — which reduces the manpower needed at the range to operate ground sensors.
Schiess said the March 26 national security launch of the AEHF-6 satellite required about 300 government personnel on base, whereas the Starlink mission will require about 200. Half those people would be at the operations center. The other 100 are a mix of security forces, civil engineers and safety personnel needed to lock down the area for a launch.
“We believe we can execute the Starlink mission with no degradation to resource protection or public safety,” Schiess said.
Schiess was pressed by reporters to explain why a Starlink mission is important enough to be carried out during the pandemic. He said he could not speak for SpaceX on why the company needs to get these satellites to orbit, but from a range standpoint, it helps to stay on schedule as much as possible. Commercial launches like Starlink are also valuable to help train Space Force operators, Schiess said.
“We believe we can continue to support them without harm to our personnel,” he said. “From a mission standpoint, it keeps our folks trained and ready.” The schedule is also important, he said. The more launches get postponed to later in the year, the bigger the backlog, and that “may affect a national security launch at a later time,” Schiess said. “Continuing with the range schedule will help us when this situation is over.”
With regard to the GPS 3 launch delay, Schiess noted that the Space and Missile Systems Center determined that the constellation of 31 satellites is healthy and that a pause in launches would not affect its performance.
Until the Space Force sets a new launch date, the $500 million GPS 3 satellite will be stored at Lockheed Martin’s Astrotech processing facility in Florida.