A Tale of 2 Launch Ranges: The Best & Worst of Times

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-4 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41. (Credit: ULA)

America’s Eastern and Western launch ranges in Florida and California are struggling to keep up with increasing demand from the nation’s booming commercial launch industry while dealing with budget uncertainties in Washington, U.S. Air Force officials said last week.

The Eastern Range has been dealing with a surge of flights this year from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as SpaceX has increased its launch cadence. Elon Musk’s company and rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) has launched 18 times from Florida thus far, with two more SpaceX flights on the schedule for later this month.

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing, told Florida Today last week the number could rise to as many as 48 launches per year by 2023 as SpaceX increases its launch rate and other companies such as Blue Origin begin operations.

That would appear to be a good problem to have. However, the Air Force is struggling to maintain and upgrade the range’s aging infrastructure. The Eastern Range was recently closed for two weeks while workers tackled 85 high-priority maintenance projects, the general said.

The growth in launches could be adversely impacted by Congress’ annual failure to agree on a budget in time for the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, Monteith said. The nation is currently operating on a continuing resolution that expires on Dec. 8. Another short-term deal or a government shutdown could result later this week.

Without a deal, in a worst-case scenario, the government would shut down, as it did for 16 days in 2013. Then only about 900 uniformed personnel — a quarter of the 45th Space Wing’s work force — would report to work until the shutdown ended. (NASA’s Kennedy Space Center also would be affected.)

Or, if the continuing resolution were extended through the remainder of the budget year, freezing spending at last year’s levels, it would trigger mandatory cuts in defense spending. That, too, would result in furloughs of civilian employees.

“I can’t launch rockets with a quarter of my work force,” said Monteith….

Continued budget uncertainty threatens to stall such new projects, costing taxpayers more in the long run, Monteith said.

“It’s the budget instability that kills us,” he said. “My ask is, approve the budget.”

Meanwhile, the Western Range that handles launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is at a “critical crossroads”  as it struggles to keep up with demands from commercial launch providers that want to make use of the base’s location to send payloads into polar orbit, said Col. Michael S. Hough, commander of the 30th Space Wing.

“There’s a lot of interest coming to Vandenberg Air Force Base right now for commercial launches,” he said. “SpaceX is already here, Orbital ATK is already here and Blue (Origin) is looking right now. And there’s a bunch of smaller companies who are very interested. I want to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, here’s what we can provide you … ’ and I can’t do that.”

The sequestration spending cuts not only significantly reduced the amount of funding allocated to the base, as well as the military overall, but the subsequent continuing resolutions passed by Congress each year since have also made things difficult, Hough said, because the money is provided in irregular increments.

This prevents base leaders from being able to plan for significant upgrades or major projects because they don’t know exactly when they’ll receive funding or how much they’ll receive. Hough noted that, presently, funds are typically spent on “Band-Aid fixes” to things that should be getting a lot more attention.

“If you look on this base, this is a very old installation, old infrastructure,” Hough said. “Our communication lines are electrical and our grid is very, very old, so we just do patchwork to it as opposed to coming in and doing full upgrades.”

“We have radars out here (that are running on) ’50s technology that we’re still putting Band-Aids on,” he added. “This stuff, it’s incredible. We keep it going because we have great people that are doing it, but it’s gonna reach a point, I think, where we’re just going to turn people off if we can’t provide the latest and greatest, in terms of software and infrastructure.”

If launch providers can’t get what they need at Vandenberg, they could end up going elsewhere. The Eastern Range can support polar launches, as can the Pacific Launch Complex — Alaska on Kodiak Island.

Satellite owners might also choose to launch their payloads on foreign boosters if American companies can’t meet their needs.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which is awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature, requires the Defense Department (DOD) to develop a plan to modernize the Eastern and Western ranges. The DOD is instructed to consult current and future users of the range and can consider partnerships to accomplish the upgrades. A report is due to Congress within 120 days after enactment of the act.