CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. (AFNS) – A blinding flash erupts from under a rocket as it slowly rises from a launch pad. It quickly picks up speed, while its fiery tail singes the evening sky.
As moments pass, the rocket cranks up its thrust. By the 30-minute mark, the rocket is in space, racing around Earth at nearly 20,000 mph or over 26 times the speed of sound. After much anticipation, the rocket completes its job, releasing a payload into orbit — a satellite delivering communications to millions.
Before these far-reaching feats of technology are accomplished, uniformed and civilian Airmen with the 45th Space Wing verify rocket boosters and satellites are primed while keeping the 16,000-acre range operating safely.
Airmen continually map a role at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where there were 16 successful launches and one anomaly in 2015. Almost twice as many launches are being planned for this year.
“Our wing is home to the most successful spaceport in the world,” said Capt. Alexander Blackwell, a mission flight test conductor for the wing’s 1st Range Operations Squadron. “We are diligently preparing for 30 launches this year and are eagerly looking forward to meeting the challenge.”
Preparing for launch
Either by truck, aircraft or ship, massive rocket boosters arrive at the base where Airmen help ready them.
“At some point, something is going to go wrong,” said 1st Lt. Mitch McClune, a 5th Space Launch Squadron responsible engineer. “We provide our input to mitigate that risk and get us back on track.”
A myriad of problems can arise, from missed defects at the factory to processing anomalies.
“There are numerous amounts of procedures (needed) with processing this thing,” McClune said, pointing to a triple-booster Delta IV Heavy rocket — the most powerful American rocket in operation, standing more than 20 stories tall.
While contractors physically handle spacecraft, Airmen ensure tools are calibrated, testing systems run smoothly and techniques are followed, as well as doing prelaunch risk assessments.
It takes about a month for a rocket booster to be processed and cleared for launch, a tense time for all involved.
“There are a lot of nerves because I know how much work went into the vehicle and the value of the mission on top of it,” McClune said of rockets and their payloads. “Fingers crossed that this thing goes up and that you did everything possible.”
Tech. Sgt. Joseph Freeman, who works as the 5th SLS mission assurance technician NCO in charge for Atlas V rockets, believes the reward of a successful launch is worth all the painstaking analysis, testing and preparation.
“It’s interesting to see something that actually launches,” said Freeman, who, like other MATs, comes from the missileer career field. “Here you’re working on something that’s gone in 30 days.”
With dozens of launches under his belt, Freeman also helps move fragile satellites to integration facilities on base where they’re loaded onto rockets. The journey can take hours as they carefully drive 10 mph with each multimillion dollar satellite.
“We have to make sure everything is clear,” he said of the roadways. “We don’t want the spacecraft to hit anything.”
While the 5th SLS handles rocket boosters, the 45th Launch Support Squadron certifies satellite payloads are ready after extensive fuel and electrical systems testing.
“We can’t really fix the problems on orbit,” said Joel McCray, a 45th LCSS responsible engineer. “It’s got to be right the first time.”
Engineers look at data and do risk assessments during the three-month processing of satellites, including those for GPS, Wideband Global SATCOM and Mobile User Objective Systems, all of which improve U.S. military communications.
“The leadership is able to see that we’re burning down the risk, making sure everything is good before the launch,” McCray said.
McCray and others rely on the expertise of mission assurance technicians, who serve as an extra set of eyes as contractors work on the delicate satellites.
“We’re all human; mistakes can be made,” said Staff Sgt. Ron Cummings, a 45th LCSS MAT. “Our job is to double- and triple-check everything to prevent the mistakes from happening.”
Assurance technicians also oversee the transport of satellites, especially the Air Force-owned GPS satellites, from the factory to Cape Canaveral AFS before they head to space.
“To see your work from start to finish and to actually produce a product, it’s awesome,” Cummings said.
On launch day, wing members scatter across the base, monitoring range operations, security, weather and potential disasters.
“We are one team delivering assured space launch, range and combat capabilities for the nation,” Blackwell said of all the mission partners.
Blackwell was the range operations commander for the last GPS IIF satellite mission on Feb. 5, ending a 27-year era of Airmen processing second-generation GPS satellites.
As the lead military person behind the scenes before liftoff, he gave status updates for the Atlas V rocket mission to the launch decision authority, who authorized the unit’s final go for launch.
On March 4, Airmen were at it again with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch of the SES-9 communications satellite. Then another Atlas V rocket lifted off March 22 before a second Falcon 9 launched April 8, as part of resupply missions to the International Space Station.
Once a rocket blasts off, anxious moods linger until it passes a trajectory where debris, if the rocket were to explode, would fall on populated areas.
“Public safety is our No. 1 priority so that’s a very important time to us,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Lindsey, the 45th Mission Support Group’s Detachment 1 commander. “When it reaches time ‘off the beach,’ it means that if anything happens at that point all debris will be in the water.”
In the run up to launch, wing safety officials enter data into computers to come up with countless scenarios of where debris could land if the rocket veered off course and had to be destroyed.
“You get to fly the vehicle (in a computer simulation) millions of times, collect that data, and plot it into a histogram and see what are the probabilities and consequences,” said Curt Botts, the 45th SW chief of launch safety.
The 45th SW Safety Office, located on nearby Patrick Air Force Base, has about 30 safety analysts and engineers reviewing launch missions.
“Everything we do is for the launch,” said Botts, noting that beside debris impacts, they also check for toxic fumes from fuels and potential blast waves that can shatter windows miles away.
And with different contractors launching rockets on base, it gets even harder to predict outcomes.
“The trouble with these rockets is that no two are alike,” Botts said. “Until that time when all the rockets are the same, we’ll have to keep looking at probabilities. Since meteorology on launch day can affect debris and especially with differing payloads, for the foreseeable future we must evaluate risks for each vehicle for each mission.”
As space missions continue pivoting to commercial companies, more complex ideas emerge. With SpaceX trying to land its boosters back on Earth to save money, for instance, the number of possible hazards can increase.
“It’s scary when the risk you worked to mitigate now has a rocket section that’s coming back down at you,” Botts said, adding that the safety office worked with SpaceX to adapt models and methods, and briefed local authorities to significantly reduce the risk. “This means now we look at mitigating two public safety scenarios instead of one.”
Landing a shuttle presented the same issues and risks at the time, he said.
“But this — separating stage one, monitoring the flight of the continuing stages and the returning stage, and landing — is definitely unprecedented,” he said of the SpaceX missions.
By being more adaptive, yet remaining hyper-focused on eliminating risk as much as possible, Botts said the Air Force aggressively takes steps to support innovative ideas while ensuring its ability to safely launch national security space payloads into orbit.
Space activities are intrinsically dangerous. Congress acknowledged this fact by characterizing space transportation as “inherently risky” in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. While that description does not say space activities can never be safe, it does infer that space transportation presents unique challenges. Increased cross-talk and coordination among all space stakeholders has become more important than ever in today’s limited resource environment, Botts said.
Lindsey, whose Det. 1 office frequently interacts with contractors, welcomes change but stresses caution as innovators look to trim costs.
“Safety drives our mission, and yes, that can be expensive,” he said, noting that his office collaborates with contractors to cut mission costs. “We can never take our eye off the ball, which is mission assurance. Success is measured one launch at a time.
Lindsey knows the reasoning behind the commercial space contractors’ bold ideas. “They’re trying to get the process down, so they can tweak it and make it more efficient, which is good,” he said.
Upgraded equipment and communications has recently modernized how range personnel work, allowing for faster automated calibration, set up and remote monitoring of launches.
But with any adjustment, safety remains the foundation. The safer a launch can be, the easier it is to resume operations.
“We can’t have the range down,” Lindsey said. “Do it safely, recover safely and do it timely. This is the philosophy behind keeping the Eastern Range running and open for business.”