Air Force Moves Forward with Initiatives to Improve Range Operations

The U.S. Air Force is moving ahead with two initiatives designed to make their launch ranges more user friendly and to facilitate partnerships with private sector and state entities, according to presentations given at a recent FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting.

A provision in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act allows private-sector and non-federal contributions to and cost sharing for federal launch ranges, Maj. Justin Sutherland told attendees. “Contributions may include funds, services, equipment and requests for range support and services in DoD contractual requirements,” according to the presentation.

The previous law was ambiguous as to whether the Air Force could accept non-federal contributions and enter into partnerships. Commercial entities were able to use excess capacity and were billed for direct costs on over sized ranges designed to meet U.S. military requirements.

Sutherland said the new approach enables “lower range costs, increases range capacity, and expands use of national resources to enhance commercial Space and national security.” The commercial space industry would have access to DOD launch and range infrastructure at a lower cost.  The Air Force would benefit from “fair sharing of costs for infrastructure, ops, and maintenance” and increased efficiencies.

The Air Force is now working on a plan to implement the new policy in cooperation with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Sutherland said.

Under a related initiative, the Air Force is looking to “right size” its launch ranges with an eye toward decreasing costs while maintaining the same risk levels,  according to Debra Facktor Lepore, chair of COMSTAC’s Operations Working Group (OWS).

As part of the effort, the Aerospace Corporation is conducting an in-depth analysis that includes input from the commercial space launch industry.  These inputs are due by the end of June.

Facktor Lepore said that COMSTAC is concerned that the implementation process for private-sector and state partnerships “has many challenges that are not being considered.” OWS recommended that “FAA/AST continue to play a role in facilitating dialogue between the Air Force and industry on this issue.”

She also said that FAA/AST should be actively engaged in the on-going effort to “right size” the range, including providing input into the analysis.

The Air Force’s major ranges cover the Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral launch sites. Commercial launch providers have long complained about bureaucracy and slowness at government-run ranges and the possibility of their flights getting bumped for higher-priority national security launches.

The commercial launch provider SpaceX is looking to construct its own launch facility that would be separate from Air Force-run ranges. The company has been considering locations in Texas, Florida, George and Puerto Rico.