One success in a row is still a success...

  • Published
  • By Col. Scott Henderson
  • 45th Launch Group commander
"The one true meaningful measure of merit in the launch vehicle business is completing one launch in a row successfully." -- Mike Spence, sage launch veteran.

Many in our business get caught up in the incredible string of successes we've had over the past eight years in the launch business - over 60 straight launches in a row without a failure. While this is impressive, the launch veterans out there, who know this is a brutal business, are unforgiving of those who fail to take it seriously or start believing the press clippings. They have seen what can happen in the launch business when you take your eye off the ball for even the smallest instance - a catastrophic failure.

The most recent example of this was in the late 1990s when the Department of Defense completed a presidentially mandated Broad Area Review in response to three consecutive launch failures of the Titan IV system in 1999. The review concluded, among other things, that process deficiencies, a loss of engineering and technical expertise, and reduced government oversight were causal factors in the string of failures. The Air Force and the entire launch community took these findings to heart and have built up strong processes to remedy the issues identified in the Broad Area Review. My worry is that after eight years of building this robust capability, we are walking down a path that moves us back into the high-risk zone we saw in the late 90s. It is our job as professionals at the world's most dynamic launch base to ensure that doesn't happen.

Over the course of the past year the 45th Space Wing and the launch enterprise as a whole has gone through a time of unprecedented challenge. Sweeping initiatives such AFSO-21, the Launch Enterprise Team, "fact-of-life" budget cuts, range transformation, and a number of high-level launch and range studies have become part of our daily life. While there are definitely areas for improvement in this business, we must make sure we stick with the tried and true principles we have developed and that have led us to 62 successes in a row. Our job is to get the mission on orbit so it works when and where it is needed. To do that, we must continue to treat each launch operation as the most important mission we have because, as my team never fails to remind me, "The rocket on the pad has no memory of its successful predecessors."

"The only known natural predator of a satellite is its launch vehicle"

Later this month, we will complete the build-up and test of one of the most important missions to launch from Cape Canaveral in years. Currently scheduled for launch in late December, this mission will be only the third Delta IV Heavy ever flown. Thousands of hours of preparation have gone into this launch-everything from assembling the booster to integrating the satellite to readying the range to support launch. As we get to the end game, it is vitally important that we stick to the rigor and discipline we have demonstrated in achieving our noteworthy run of success yet we must also be wary of hard lessons learned from our past. Let's go out and get one in a row!