PATRICK SPACE FORCE BASE, Fla. -- In the past ten years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of space launches from the Eastern Range (ER).
In 2008, seven missions were launched from the ER. Now, in just the first six months of 2022, 27 missions have been launched, establishing an unprecedented launch pace. This increase is due to the rise of new launch providers, rising interest in commercial launches, and decreasing costs to launch from the ER.
“Building a robust U.S, commercial launch industry benefits everyone,” said Byron Whiteman, Space Systems Command delta planning engineer. “Competition increases the launch rate, provides backup launch capability, and incentivizes companies to innovate to stay competitive. In turn, this drives down prices and increases our overall space capabilities.”
In the end, this allows the Space Force and taxpayers to purchase more launch capability with less funding.
The influx of new launch partners to the ER will help develop and sustain resilient space capabilities that the nation can depend on while efficiently delivering assured access to space, countering our near peer adversaries space capabilities.
Since Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) is the prime launch site in the U.S., new commercial launch companies are frequently seeking available launch property at CCSFS.
New launch partners must finish several on-boarding procedures before they may begin launching on the ER.
The new customer process can be broken down into five steps:
First, a launch provider must sign a Commercial Space Operations Support Agreement (CSOSA) with the department of the Air Force.
“This agreement spells out the terms and conditions of Space Force support to the commercial customer,” said Whiteman.
The CSOSA is then followed-up with signing a CSOSA Annex with the local launch support installation (Annex A for customers at CCSFS, and Annex B for customers at Vandenberg Space Force Base.)
Once the CSOSA is in place, it is required by law that all support provided to commercial customers must be funded in advance. This requires each new launch provider to open an account where funds are used to provide Space Launch Delta 45 (SLD 45) initial support.
“These funds help cover technical interchange meetings and reviewing customer requirements,” said Whiteman. “Once the customer's support requirements are better understood, SLD 45 will produce a more detailed cost estimate for ongoing support of the program.”
A program introduction document will then be submitted by the prospective range customer.
“The program introduction documentation describes their launch vehicle, concept of operations, and the support requested from SLD 45,” said Whiteman. “This process allows our experts to become familiar with the new vehicle and the support they’re requesting.”
“The most important aspect of the on-boarding process for new launch customers is to ensure their requirements are clearly stated, understood, and supportable,” said Tony Cole, 1st Range Operations Squadron (1 ROPS) program support manager. “The on-boarding process can become more efficient with better defined requirements early on.”
Program viability with present range capabilities will be assessed after a review of the program introduction documentation by SLD 45 senior leaders and technical experts.
Once the Delta senior leaders and technical experts determine the new program can be supported, a Statement of Support will be sent to the new launch partners.
“The Statement of Support documentation accepts the new launch provider as an official customer of the ER,” said Whiteman. “Upon receiving the initial approval, we can proceed with actions such as launch site/property assignment, in-depth planning for launch, and assignment of a Program Support Manager (PSM) from 1 ROPS.”
The PSM ensures that all launch provider requirements are identified, documented and supported during all phases of pre-launch and launch operations
“We ensure the range team understands launch provider requirements and we help advocate on our customer’s behalf if they require new capabilities that are not yet available on the ER,” said Cole. “When it’s time for launch or a major test, PSM’s help ensure range instrumentation is ready to support and help prepare the operational crews for their role on-console.”
The timeframe from launch provider on-boarding to initial launch from the ER has averaged around three to four years in the past. However, for the most recent launch customer that process was shortened to around six months.
In general, the length of the onboarding process can depend on which phase the provider’s launch vehicle is in. Some customers will present a flight-proven vehicle that has flown on other ranges, effectively shortening the timeline to initial launch here on the ER.
“Previously, the fastest we had been able to on-board a customer and get them ready to launch was two years, but last year we were able to compress that timeline to six months,” said U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Colin Mims, 1 ROPS commander. “The reason we were able to on-board that specific partner so fast was because their requirements and proposed schedule was offered up front.”
The launch industry as a whole benefits from competition and expansion since it fosters technological advancement and guarantees reliable capabilities for launching satellites into orbit.
The Space Force strives to build a culture of experts fostering an innovative environment that embraces the diversity of our workforce and builds subject matter experts in all disciplines.
“Our plan is to meet the increase in demand head on while continuing to look for efficiencies and partner with launch customers to support their needs,” said Cole. “We'll continue to look for opportunities to develop and implement innovative processes and procedures to meet both ER and customer requirements.”
With SLD 45’s mission to deliver assured access to space, the innovations made to on-board new launch partners more efficiently help us rapidly deliver assets to space.
“The men and women of SLD 45 are dedicated professionals that are laser focused on ensuring that every range customer and every launch campaign is conducted safely, on-time and with precision,” said Mims . “We pride ourselves on providing world-class service and assured access to space!”