WASHINGTON – As launch activity grows in Florida’s Eastern Range, businesses and government agencies are looking for ways to add capacity, largely through incremental improvements.
In a panel discussion at the 47th Spaceport Summit on February 23, Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Purdy Jr., commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, said the range withstood 32 launches in the past 12 months. Those pitches come from 55 pitches that “went on the countdown.”
However, there were 297 launch opportunities requested during that period, of which 225 were approved by the range. “Each of them is obviously a lot of work and a lot of coordination with many partners,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do just to get to those release dates, and that will continue to increase as we reach expected release rates going forward.”
The expected launch rates he referred to come from a study by The Aerospace Corporation that projected an increase in commercial launch activity from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and neighboring Kennedy Space Center in the coming years. “We have more than 60 launches a year,” said Bob Cabana, director of KSC.
One innovation is the adoption of autonomous flight safety systems in launch vehicles that eliminate the need for a tracking and communications system that can take days to reconfigure from one launch attempt to the next. “We were able to go from blocking the 72-hour to 96-hour range to supporting multiple launches in a single day,” said Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration and former commander of the 45th Space Wing.
SpaceX uses autonomous flight safety systems for its Falcon 9 launches, allowing it to closely schedule launches. The company has twice attempted two Falcon 9 launches from Space Launch Complex 40 and Launch Complex 39A on the same day, but meteorological or technical problems with the rocket prevented both launches from taking place.
“We were very close” to two launches in one day, said Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, including an attempt in February in which two launches were scheduled less than four and a half hours apart. “This will happen in the near future, that we launch two vehicles from two platforms on the same day. It will only increase from there. “
Purdy said the range has set an October 2025 deadline for other vehicle operators to adopt autonomous flight safety systems. That transition will free up a “not insignificant amount of personnel and equipment” that is currently used to track launches.
Other changes are more incremental. Both the Eastern Range and launch companies are studying weather requirements, looking for minor changes that decrease the likelihood that conditions like lightning will spoil a launch.
“We have several projects underway to keep nipping at the climate issue,” Purdy said, such as reducing the radius around a lightning strike site from five miles to four miles.
“We are investing in the technical infrastructure to make the rocket more robust against lightning,” said Scott Henderson, vice president of flight and test operations and Florida site director for Blue Origin. “The idea is that you can launch a rocket every time a plane takes off from the Orlando airport.”
However, more complex launches are introducing more weather restrictions. Koenigsmann said that many SpaceX launches have instant launch windows, with no room for error in bad weather. Crewed launches also require good weather along the trajectory to orbit in the event of a miscarriage, and most SpaceX launches involve a booster landing at sea where weather can be an issue.
Purdy said his meteorological team is working with SpaceX and others planning ocean landings to better understand weather conditions at sea. That includes incorporating climatology data along the east coast to see which areas are most likely to have favorable wind and sea conditions for a landing.
Other adjustments involve procedures. Purdy said each of the 297 requests for a launch date the range received in the past year took “several hours” to process. “The ranking process is one of our biggest weaknesses at the moment,” he said. “An automation process in that people-centered approach is something that we are trying to work on cooperatively with the FAA and our other mission partners.”
The FAA’s commercial space transportation office has taken steps to support higher launch rates through more streamlined regulations, published last fall and scheduled to go into effect formally later this month. That’s necessary, Monteith said, because the number of licensed launches is growing much faster than the number of people in his office. “If we don’t plan ahead and adapt, we will become the limiting factor for the growth and success of America’s commercial space industry,” he said.
Orbital launches in the Eastern Range are today primarily conducted by two companies, SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance. However, several more companies are either building new launch facilities or have announced plans to launch from Cape Canaveral, including Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace and Relativity. That will make launch coordination more difficult.
Henderson noted that Blue Origin Launch Complex 36, which will host New Glenn launches beginning in late 2022, is close to SpaceX Landing Zone 1, where some Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy thrusters land. Blue Origin has to clear LC-36 during a SpaceX landing, while SpaceX will have to clear Landing Zone 1 during a New Glenn launch.
“As we add more launch providers, it will be more dynamic,” he said. “We will have to find a way to do it.”
Koenigsmann was not worried. “I just don’t see anyone else doing that level of launches right now” compared to SpaceX, he said, expressing optimism that SpaceX and others can find solutions for future scheduling problems. “After all, we land on ships, right? How difficult can that be. “