45th Space Wing commander: Changes underway to support commercial launch

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Brig. Gen. Schiess: “We have to improve turnaround both with new technology and processes.”

WASHINGTON — The Eastern Range is on a path to launch as many as 40 rockets in 2020, bringing it closer to its much touted goal of 48 launches per year, said Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

Schiess said the range is not taking growth for granted and reaching that goal will require attracting more commercial launch providers.

“We have to improve turnaround both with new technology and processes,” he said Oct. 9 at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill.

Brig Gen Douglas Schiess

Schiess reminded the audience that Eastern Range activity grew from seven launches in 2008 to 24 in 2018. For 2019, the 45th Space Wing is projecting as many as 30, although that forecast is in doubt as some launches will likely be delayed, he said.

For 2020, the range expects anywhere from 33 to 40 launches, said Schiess.

To accommodate more launches and make operations more efficient, the range will have to update its infrastructure and change administrative processes, he said. For example, the wing will introduce a new scheduling system that gives launch providers more access and flexibility.

“We will bring in a new scheduling system in the near future,” said Schiess. “I know it sounds crazy. I know you’re thinking: ‘Why wouldn’t you already have this?’”

With the new system, launch providers will be able to access the platform “to find the best time to launch,” he said.

A simple change like requiring companies to coordinate and work together can bring about huge efficiencies, said Schiess. That was a lesson learned in August when the 45th Space Wing supported back-to-back SpaceX and United Launch Alliance missions.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the AMOS-17 telecommunications satellite and 34 hours later ULA launched an Air Force communications satellite from a different pad. “That’s the first time that’s been done in over 30 years,” Schiess said. What helped pull this off was that both companies “had to work together.” He said having two providers in the room talking to the range at the same time to coordinate scheduling would have been unheard of a few years ago.

Technology upgrades also are needed for more efficient operations, he said. The range in 2017 launched its first mission using the Autonomous Flight Safety System when a SpaceX Falcon 9 flew a NASA cargo mission to the International Space Station. AFSS is a self-contained system mounted to the launch vehicle that determines if the rocket poses an unacceptable hazard to people or property using pre-established mission rules. If necessary, AFSS has the ability to destroy the rocket to ensure public safety.

Schiess said boosters equipped with AFSS have had a total of 38 operational launches from the Eastern Range and the Western Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. That included 10 SpaceX boosters that flew back — nine returned to Cape Canaveral and one to Vandenberg.

AFSS gradually will replace aging range infrastructure and will allow the range to support more launches, he said. “Thankfully AFSS has not had to destroy a launch vehicle and we haven’t had any anomalies in flight since we started it.”

The commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. John Raymond is a prominent advocate of AFSS. “He wants to go faster so we can get everybody off the flight termination system and everybody on AFSS,” said Schiess. “We need the right network to do that.”

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center will be taking over the job of modernizing the range with a digital architecture, said Schiess. An update to the technology is badly needed but that also comes with new risks, he added. “The biggest thing that concerns me is cyber. Someone could get into our network as we develop a digital infrastructure,” he said. “I see that as a threat. When people ask me what kind of intelligence do I need for a contested environment, my answer is that I need to know who’s out there trying to get into our networks.”

This year the Eastern Range signed agreements with two new launch providers: Relativity Space and Firefly. Northrop Grumman is building a new facility for its new OmegA rocket. Schiess said the range can launch every vehicle in the U.S. fleet with the exception of the Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile that is launched from Vandenberg.

He said that the Eastern and Western ranges are not in competition and increasingly are working together to simplify processes for launch providers. “A key issue is to have the same process for both ranges,” Schiess said. There might be different safety issues due to the geography “but we want to make sure the provider doesn’t see a difference when they come to the Eastern Range or the Western Range.”

The Eastern Range could in the future launch missions to polar orbits, which typically are done from Vandenberg, he said. “SpaceX is working a mission to do a polar launch from the Eastern Range, and we are supporting that. I think that gives us more flexibility if something happened at Vandenberg.”

Senior leaders like Raymond often talk about the “range of the future,” Schiess said. That means updating the range so more companies can use it, and it also means creating a friendlier business environment. “Part of range of the future is supporting commercial launch,” he said. “What I tell airmen is that this is important because a strong economy is necessary to support a strong national defense.”