VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Missions to polar orbits are not in high demand these days, and that has caused a slowdown in space launch activity at the 99,000-acre Western Range. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are the primary tenants of the range supported by the 30th Space Wing, but their West Coast launches are now few and far between. Five of the eight launches projected for 2019 are intercontinental ballistic missile tests; only three are satellite launches.
“We are having a lull,” said Col. Michael Hough, commander of the Air Force 30th Space Wing and Western Range. “This is market driven. Demand for polar orbits is just not that high,” he said during a recent meeting with government officials attended by a SpaceNews reporter.
Activity might pick up in a few years when the next phase of the National Security Space Launch program ramps up. For now, Hough believes the void could be filled by the burgeoning small launch industry. He touted the arrival last year of Firefly Aerospace, a small launch company that leased Space Launch Complex 2 West, which was previously used by ULA’s Delta 2.
Range officials have been in discussions with small launch providers Relativity Space, Vector and Rocket Lab, although none has yet made any commitments.
“In order to achieve polar orbit there is no better place to be than Vandenberg,” Hough said. Because of its location, intercontinental ballistic missiles are launched over water without endangering populated areas. Satellites fly south into polar orbit without flying over any land masses. Nevertheless, launch providers remain ambivalent about investing in West Coast launch pads in the face of uncertain demand. “I think you’re going to see a day when they’re going to try hard to do it at the Cape,” he said. Launch activity at Cape Canaveral on the Florida space coast is growing. “I don’t blame companies for wanting to do that, and consolidate operations on the East Coast.”
Hough insists that Vandenberg could become more attractive to commercial companies as infrastructure is modernized and red tape reduced. “I want people to come out here,” he said. “It was evident soon after I arrived here that we needed to be more supportive of commercial launch.”
National security launches
Two potential new tenants are big rocket manufacturers Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman that are competing for a National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract. The Air Force will select two providers next year from a field that includes Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and ULA.
To win a Phase 2 contract, providers must have launch facilities on both coasts. Today only SpaceX and ULA meet that requirement. Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are just starting to build their pads on the East Coast but have yet no capability yet to launch from Vandenberg.
Ensuring Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman have access to a launch pad at Vandenberg has become a headache of sorts for the Air Force and for both companies because of the enormous cost and regulatory obstacles in building new launch infrastructure at the base. The companies both received Launch Service Agreement contracts last year from the Air Force to help pay for new infrastructure but companies still would have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into facilities that would have limited use and hardly any commercial business.
Hough said it would take at least two years to secure state permits for a space launch pad and although Vandenberg is a huge base, the land available to build a large pad is limited. There are also safety concerns, he said, because much of the available land is near the town of Lompoc and residents there would feel shockwaves from rocket blasts.
“We have been working closely with SMC on this issue,” said Hough. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center manages the national security launch program. “Everybody knows about our challenges here when it comes to terrain.”
SMC has arranged for Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to check out Space Launch Complex 6, where ULA launches Delta 4 Heavy rockets. The company in January launched a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite from SLC-6.
“We want to make sure that anyone that’s interested has access to the SLC-6 pad,” said Michael Sanjume, chief of SMC’s launch enterprise acquisition division. “The government has a role in making sure all parties have access to evaluate what’s available,” he told SpaceNews.
ULA is leasing SLC-6 for Delta 4 Heavy launches at least until 2024. The company also leases SLC-3 for Atlas 5 launches.
Hough said SLC-6 is “very attractive to these companies” that are competing for NSSL contracts. “SMC has opened up that door to SLC-6 to allow some competitors to go in there for what I call ‘measuring for curtains.’”
SLC-6, originally built in the 1960s to launch the Air Force’s never-flown Manned Orbital Laboratory, was repurposed in the 1980s as a dedicated launch and landing site for military space shuttle missions. After the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Air Force mothballed the site without ever conducting a West Coast shuttle launch. It reactivated the site in the 1990s for a handful of Lockheed Martin Athena launches and eventually turned it over to the Delta 4 program. SLC-6’s runway, built for shuttle landings that never occurred, was used to land the Air Force’s X-37B reusable spaceplane three times between 2010 and 2012.
Hough said accommodating a new national security launch provider at Vandenberg remains a challenge. “Wouldn’t it be great if SLC-6 was multipurpose?” he said. “We floated that idea to SMC, with real estate the way it is.”
Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Jennifer Bowman told SpaceNews that the Air Force is “working with NSSL companies for access to Vandenberg Air Force Base, and SLC-6 is one of the options. Depending on who is selected, it could become a multi-use pad.”
According to industry sources, ULA has expressed concerns about giving its competitors access to the Delta 4 launch facility that contains sensitive technology. Blue Origin has been eyeing multiple options at Vandenberg, including a new greenfield, old decommissioned sites and an active launch site.
Doing business with SpaceX
Hough said he has been impressed by SpaceX’s ways of doing business. “It’s a very innovative company to work with,” he said. “I do not bet against them. When they set a goal to do something they’re pretty amazing and they get it done.”
One of the lessons from working with SpaceX is that the Air Force has to adapt, said Hough. “It’s a challenge for us. It’s challenging to work with commercial companies. We’re inherently bureaucratic, which means we’re slow and methodical.”
Companies like SpaceX “keep us on our toes,” said Hough. “When they have to get a satellite on orbit, they are very demanding of us,” he said. “We appreciate what they do. It is frustrating at times,” Hough said. “But we have learned a lot working with them, which helps us.”
To position the range for the future, said Hough, “we need innovative airmen to help figure out new processes.”
The range also will have to update its technology. SpaceX brings its own telemetry sensors, radar and cameras. That saves them the cost of having to pay the government to use the range’s equipment. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket has an automated flight safety system, or AFSS, which tracks the performance of the vehicle and terminates the flight if anything goes wrong. “They’re the only company doing that,” said Hough. The Air Force starting in 2023 will require space vehicles at its ranges to have AFSS, “and if you don’t have it by 2023, what we provide, you’ll pay for.”