Eastern Range commander Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy: “We are prepared for a huge jump in activity”
The past year saw 135 successful orbital launches worldwide, surpassing a record that had stood since 1967. While China edged out the United States 53 to 48, Florida’s Space Coast set a one-year launch record of its own.
Thirty-one rockets reached orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and NASA’s neighboring Kennedy Space Center in 2021 — one more than SpaceX and United Launch Alliance combined to launch in 2020 from the Eastern Range to break Florida’s personal best of 29 successful orbital launches set in 1966.
Long the busiest space launch complex in the United States, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy extended their combined five-year streak as the busiest commercial, civil and military launch range in the world.
Space Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of Space Launch Delta 45, expects the launch tempo to increase appreciably in 2022 at the Eastern Range, with as many as 66 orbital launches penciled on the calendar.
SpaceX, which launched 28 of Florida’s 31 orbital missions in 2021, is poised for another record year of satellite launches and human spaceflight missions, Purdy said. Although SpaceX hasn’t released a launch forecast for the year, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said during a Jan. 27 meeting that the company was planning for 52 launches in 2022 — most of which would launch from Florida.
The Space Coast’s projected 2022 launch totals also include several planned launches from United Launch Alliance, including the debut of its Vulcan Centaur rocket, the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, and an unspecified number of missions for new smallsat launchers from Astra and Relativity Space slated for Florida debuts.
“We’ll see if they hold the schedule,” Purdy said of the small launchers. “But we are prepared for a huge jump in activity,” he told SpaceNews. “It’s a fascinating future for the Eastern Range.”
Purdy assumed command of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45 at Florida’s Patrick Space Force Base in January 2021. Known as the 45th Space Wing when it was under the Air Force, Space Launch Delta 45 manages launch operations on the Eastern Range, which includes Cape Canaveral and Kennedy.
A NEW COMMERCIAL SPACE ERA
Several new launch vehicles are in various stages of preparation to start flying from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy over the coming year, including NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket, ULA’s Vulcan Centaur and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. “And of course Starship as well,” said Purdy. Elon Musk in December announced SpaceX has started to build a pad in Florida for its massive Starship rocket.
Other new arrivals include Astra Space, a five-year-old startup that has been launching from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, and launched a NASA mission for the first time from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 10. The mission failed after the rocket’s upper stage appeared to tumble out of control after stage separation..
“We’re really proud about the fact that we managed to onboard Astra to the range and got them ready to launch within six months,” said Purdy. “It previously took us over two years to onboard new launch providers.”
Purdy said he finds it striking that the vast majority of missions at Cape Canaveral will be commercial or civil for the foreseeable future. Only three national security space launches are scheduled for 2022. The long-term outlook for military launches is roughly five to eight missions in a single year, a small percentage of the overall launch activity.
“We have pivoted to become a commercial spaceport even though our reason to exist was national security launch,” he said. “It’s really interesting to see this.”
To keep up with the demand, the range has modified rules and procedures to help increase capacity and accommodate the fast-moving commercial industry.
“We tell ourselves that we have to mentally plan for 100 launches a year,” said Purdy. Even if that target is not realistic today, “it helps you get into that framework and mindset about what we can do to speed up our processes and our technology.”
SMALL STEPS TO BOOST CAPACITY
Piecemeal changes now being implemented will add up over time to increase productivity so more launches can be squeezed into the calendar, Purdy said.
Under the FAA’s new commercial space licensing rules, for example, fewer workers have to be evacuated during operations at the Eastern Range’s three busiest pads, Launch Complex 39, 40 and 41. By changing the risk analysis, “we can safely allow more people in the nearby area for a few more hours,” said Purdy. This new rule was first applied earlier this month when SpaceX launched the Transporter-3 rideshare mission carrying 105 small satellites.
Another recent action by the Space Force and the FAA was to renegotiate airspace use with the Navy in order to maximize launch windows, Purdy said. The U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Unit based at Cape Canaveral flies aircraft sorties and conducts Trident ballistic missile test launches from submarines. Six were launched in 2021.
These are examples of “things we’re doing to cram in more launch opportunities and capabilities,” he said.
How launch pads are designed and managed also can boost productivity, Purdy said.
Most of the launch providers at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy lease their pads for their exclusive use, but there are options to launch payloads from multi-user pads which provide more flexibility, Purdy said. “I’m a big proponent of clean pad concepts.”
So-called clean pads are intended to be shared by multiple launch companies. Clean pads provide the basic infrastructure, but the launch providers bring in most of the support equipment needed to fly the rockets, Purdy said. “They launch from a flat concrete area, and sometimes all they need is water, power and internet. Then they leave and they take all their equipment with them so the pad is immediately available to other users.”
Small rocket operator Relativity Space leased LC-16, a pad previously used by the U.S. Air Force, to launch its Terran 1 vehicle. Astra is launching its first demo mission from LC-46, a pad the Space Force licensed from Space Florida, the state’s economic development agency. “But our long-term thinking is to move them to LC-48, a clean pad area built by NASA,” said Purdy.
ABL Space Systems plans to conduct the first launch of its RS1 rocket from Alaska later this year but is also looking to launch from Cape Canaveral perhaps next year, said Purdy. However, that timeline could slip after a Jan. 19 test incident destroyed the RS1 upper stage. ABL’s first mission from Florida will be the launch of two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband constellation.
Purdy said clean pads are ideal for companies like ABL that pack their ground system into shipping containers in order to launch from a variety of locations.
The Space Force wants to see the industry design more innovative pads to support an assortment of launch vehicles and fast turnarounds. “I want to find a way so that everybody wins,” said Purdy. “How can we apply maximum multi-use launch concepts and build a common pad design that allows maybe 16 companies to launch? That’s the stretch goal.”
A recent Defense Department inspector general audit found that both the Eastern and Western Range at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, are challenged to maintain aging equipment, including instruments and telemetry antennas.
In a report published Jan. 5, the IG said the Space Force is at an “increased risk that aging range items with obsolete components could limit future launch capacity on the Eastern and Western ranges.” But the audit also found that the Space Force has successfully supported launches despite these challenges.
“Range item performance enabled successful launches for the 30 launches we reviewed out of 90 DoD, civilian agencies and commercial space launches that occurred between January 2018 and March 2021,” said the report.
Purdy’s take on the IG audit is that “they were really complimentary of what we’ve done,” he added. The problems associated with obsolete spare parts have been known for a long time, he added. “They highlighted some things that we’re aware of, and we’re monitoring.”
Some of the aging instrumentation used at the ranges is needed to support launch vehicles that don’t have automated flight safety systems, which track vehicle performance and autonomously destroy a rocket if it flies off course. SpaceX has used automated technology for many years, but Purdy said not every launcher has it. The Space Force plans to make autonomous flight safety systems mandatory by 2025.
Cape Canaveral is making upgrades to the communications infrastructure, Purdy said, so launch providers can use their own range instrumentation rather than rely on Space Force equipment.
Years ago, the Space Force chief of space operations, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, started an initiative called “range of the future” that emphasizes using technologies such as autonomous systems to make launch ranges more efficient and less costly to operate.
“I really don’t like the term ‘range of the future,’ and I’m trying to change it” because it implies that the Space Force is looking 20 years out, Purdy said. Change is already happening and will be continuing, he said. “We’ve been constantly evolving for the last couple of years, changing business processes, changing safety analysis, changing our technology, and so we’re constantly evolving to get better and faster.”
Meanwhile, questions about DoD’s capabilities to support commercial launches have drawn congressional attention.
The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Space Force to submit a detailed strategy to modernize the infrastructure at the launch ranges. Congress wants to know what investments are needed to update launch facilities for the new space economy and what legislative action might be required to allow the private sector to help pay for that.
Purdy said he is currently drafting content for the report, due in early April. He said the NDAA provision represents a “really unique opportunity” for a national conversation about space launch infrastructure investments and business models to meet future demands.
NEW BUSINESS MODEL NEEDED
There is no question that space launch facilities have to catch up to the new space age, Purdy said, noting that they were stood up decades ago for military use when commercial activity did not exist.
“The ranges were built back in the 1960s, and they were built in an era when all we had were national security launches,” he said. The rise of the private space industry calls for managing ranges more like a commercial airport.
Before the Space Force was established, the Air Force Space Command in 2019 floated the idea of converting the ranges into multi-use national spaceports that could better accommodate commercial and civil space launch demands.
That prospect is still being discussed, said Purdy, but federal spending rules are an obstacle to adopting a commercial business model. By law, DoD is responsible for operating and maintaining the ranges and cannot accept private funding for infrastructure upgrades.
“We have had commercial partners launch service providers come onto the campus and say, ‘hey, I want to give you money because I need to add this infrastructure piece to our pad,’” he said. “I cannot accept it. I am not allowed to accept money from launch providers to help them do what they need to do with their pads because of existing rules.”
As current law states, “we provide excess capacity to commercial launch providers,” Purdy explained. That means the Space Force and NASA can allow commercial companies to use existing launch pads and hangars, and the industry only pays for direct costs such as supplies and utilities.
The problem with that is there are overhead costs associated with all of those kinds of services that the government has to pay for, he added. The growing population of commercial players is putting more stress on the government workforce managing and maintaining services.
At some point, government resources will be overwhelmed, “and we’re going to slow it down because of that,” said Purdy.
The Space Force has been in discussions with NASA, the FAA, the launch industry and Wall Street investors to figure out a way forward, said Purdy. “We need to make a tweak so that we can accept funds from companies if they want to provide them. And secondly, we have to have a better approach on infrastructure.”
He said it is imperative to have a business model that allows users of the range to fund infrastructure and services. However, “I don’t want to dramatically increase the cost to the commercial industry. I really want to maximize our ability to launch, but we’ve got to get more into that sort of port authority model, where there’s additional funds that come in so we can get after some of those infrastructure improvements that can meet all the needs of the commercial providers without having a huge excess overhead.”
These reforms eventually will have to be taken up by Congress. “If we get to a point where we want to be able to accept commercial funds, that’s going to require legislation because I can’t do that now,” Purdy said.
But growth is a good problem to have, he said. Despite congestion and other challenges experienced at the Eastern Range, it will continue to be a preferred location as there aren’t many alternatives for vertical space launch.
Air-launch companies like Virgin Orbit can take off from airfields to deploy small satellites. “As a military commander, I like that flexibility,” Purdy said. “If you manage to find another location to launch, that’s great.”
But air launch today is limited to small payloads. The Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia can support vertical launches of smaller satellites. But the reality, Purdy said, “is that if you’re talking vertical launch capacity for medium and heavy payloads, there’s really only a couple places to do it: Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.