A Tale of 2 Launch Ranges: The Best & Worst of Times

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-4 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41. (Credit: ULA)

America’s Eastern and Western launch ranges in Florida and California are struggling to keep up with increasing demand from the nation’s booming commercial launch industry while dealing with budget uncertainties in Washington, U.S. Air Force officials said last week.

The Eastern Range has been dealing with a surge of flights this year from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as SpaceX has increased its launch cadence. Elon Musk’s company and rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) has launched 18 times from Florida thus far, with two more SpaceX flights on the schedule for later this month.

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing, told Florida Today last week the number could rise to as many as 48 launches per year by 2023 as SpaceX increases its launch rate and other companies such as Blue Origin begin operations.

That would appear to be a good problem to have. However, the Air Force is struggling to maintain and upgrade the range’s aging infrastructure. The Eastern Range was recently closed for two weeks while workers tackled 85 high-priority maintenance projects, the general said.

The growth in launches could be adversely impacted by Congress’ annual failure to agree on a budget in time for the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, Monteith said. The nation is currently operating on a continuing resolution that expires on Dec. 8. Another short-term deal or a government shutdown could result later this week.

Without a deal, in a worst-case scenario, the government would shut down, as it did for 16 days in 2013. Then only about 900 uniformed personnel — a quarter of the 45th Space Wing’s work force — would report to work until the shutdown ended. (NASA’s Kennedy Space Center also would be affected.)

Or, if the continuing resolution were extended through the remainder of the budget year, freezing spending at last year’s levels, it would trigger mandatory cuts in defense spending. That, too, would result in furloughs of civilian employees.

“I can’t launch rockets with a quarter of my work force,” said Monteith….

Continued budget uncertainty threatens to stall such new projects, costing taxpayers more in the long run, Monteith said.

“It’s the budget instability that kills us,” he said. “My ask is, approve the budget.”

Meanwhile, the Western Range that handles launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is at a “critical crossroads”  as it struggles to keep up with demands from commercial launch providers that want to make use of the base’s location to send payloads into polar orbit, said Col. Michael S. Hough, commander of the 30th Space Wing.

“There’s a lot of interest coming to Vandenberg Air Force Base right now for commercial launches,” he said. “SpaceX is already here, Orbital ATK is already here and Blue (Origin) is looking right now. And there’s a bunch of smaller companies who are very interested. I want to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, here’s what we can provide you … ’ and I can’t do that.”

The sequestration spending cuts not only significantly reduced the amount of funding allocated to the base, as well as the military overall, but the subsequent continuing resolutions passed by Congress each year since have also made things difficult, Hough said, because the money is provided in irregular increments.

This prevents base leaders from being able to plan for significant upgrades or major projects because they don’t know exactly when they’ll receive funding or how much they’ll receive. Hough noted that, presently, funds are typically spent on “Band-Aid fixes” to things that should be getting a lot more attention.

“If you look on this base, this is a very old installation, old infrastructure,” Hough said. “Our communication lines are electrical and our grid is very, very old, so we just do patchwork to it as opposed to coming in and doing full upgrades.”

“We have radars out here (that are running on) ’50s technology that we’re still putting Band-Aids on,” he added. “This stuff, it’s incredible. We keep it going because we have great people that are doing it, but it’s gonna reach a point, I think, where we’re just going to turn people off if we can’t provide the latest and greatest, in terms of software and infrastructure.”

If launch providers can’t get what they need at Vandenberg, they could end up going elsewhere. The Eastern Range can support polar launches, as can the Pacific Launch Complex — Alaska on Kodiak Island.

Satellite owners might also choose to launch their payloads on foreign boosters if American companies can’t meet their needs.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which is awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature, requires the Defense Department (DOD) to develop a plan to modernize the Eastern and Western ranges. The DOD is instructed to consult current and future users of the range and can consider partnerships to accomplish the upgrades. A report is due to Congress within 120 days after enactment of the act.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    “…they could end up going nowhere” – should “nowhere” be “elsewhere”?

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Apropos range anxiety, what’s the deal with Boca Chica? Are they struggling with technical difficulties (e.g. soil preparation), land issues, or is it just low on their to-do list right now?

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks. Fixed.

  • Michael Halpern

    It was pushed aside and the people and money who were working on it management wise for the most part got redirected to CC LC-40 repairs, now that LC-40 is online, they can return their attention to Boca Chica. LC 40 was a naturally higher priority, due to the specific missions they can launch from there and the fact that they can launch more than 12 a year from that location, Boca Chica launch limit will likely increase after it comes online, but LC 40 is more critical, as SX intends to preform nearly all non crew or FH launches out of Florida from LC 40 preserving 39a and subsequently Commercial Crew missions in the event of RUD destroying the pad. They may eventually build a better strong back and service tower (with elevator) for LC 40, but in the near term the only pad they have that can support crewed launches is 39a, so they don’t want to put it at more risk of going offline for unscheduled repairs than they have to, besides the biggest advantage of the Boca Chica spaceport is as a place to conduct large suborbital tests that they need a proper pad for but don’t want to or can’t risk the CC, KSC, or Vandenberg pads for or need a larger potential damage zone for than the lease agreements allow, large tanks of subcooled methalox for example might make a few people hesitant if a pad explosion has the potential to send debris into neighboring pads and infrastructure that may be being used by other companies, the USAF or NASA, a private spaceport isolates the issue.

  • For a long time we talked about launch as if it were the ONLY bottleneck. Turns out it was just the FIRST bottleneck in a series of steps that need to be fixed to enable a true space economy.

  • Larry J

    Currently, Kodiak is only equipped to launch solid-fuel rockets. Adding the infrastructure to handle liquid-fuel rockets is certainly possible but quite expensive.

    The Air Force has been complaining about the condition of the Eastern and Western Test Ranges for at least 15 years. Perhaps now it will finally get some funding to improve things. The GPS-based flight termination system that SpaceX is using is a step in the right direction.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Thanks, hopefully with LC-40 back online, 2018 will see progress in South Texas.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    There is always talk about making space launch more like the airline business. How about funding the operation and the upgrades out of user fees charged to each launch ? I know that OHare didn’t get new runways or terminal upgrades without United and American forking over higher landing fees to pay for it.

  • Michael Halpern

    It should, some significant incentives run out if certain amount of progress (I believe measured in full time hires) isn’t made in 2018 also they need to complete it before they look at other sites.

  • Michael Halpern

    The sad part about it, is that renovation budget is only really being considered because the ranges have become commercially significant.

  • Michael Halpern

    Industry is too new, pads are leased, and new entrants don’t necessarily have the money to fork over

  • Steve Ksiazek

    The industry isn’t that new. Part of the problem is that the range was built when the aerospace industry was new, almost 50 years ago. All of the major players on both ranges have been around for more than 10 years, That isn’t an excuse any longer. SpaceX is no longer NEW space.

    The pads are leased, just like the gates at major airports. And the major airlines that pay the highest fees happen to get the prime gate positions.

    There can be a some sort of sliding fee schedule for launches, with sounding rockets getting some sort of discount, but there is no reason ULA and SpaceX can’t contribute to the maintenance of the Range based on the launch costs they are charging their customers.

  • Michael Halpern

    SX has been around for 10 years, but has only really been making significant launches in the last 5, and all 21st century born space companies are considered NewSpace even virgin group to an extent is new space Old Space is ULA, its parents, Areojet Rocketdyne, Ariene Space, Roscosmos, and so on.

  • Michael Halpern

    also companies like SX maintain their own pads, the problem is at Cape Canaveral for instance there’s over 20 pads that haven’t been used for decades, should SX, ULA and BO pay for those pads too?

  • Larry J

    Back when ULA was too expensive for commercial launches, the number of government launches per year was low enough for the existing ranges to handle. The military was complaining about the time it took to reconfigure the range for a new launch and the cost of maintaining old systems, but they could handle the relatively low rate. Instead of updating the ranges, the money was spent on other things such as the overruns on SBIRS and AEHF. With SpaceX winning so many commercial launches (and some government launches, too), the number of launches per year has increased. With that, the need to improve the ranges is greater.

  • Larry J

    Commercial launches are billed for range support costs. That cost gets folded into the price they charge their customers. I have not found the amount they’re billed but some useful information is available in this Space Review article.

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes and its not just SpaceX, or even SX and BO that are pushing the need and concern, SX is leasing 4 pads (counting the former LC 13), BO is leasing 2 that I know of, possibly a 3rd at Vandenberg, they just need the tracking equipment upgraded and other general infrastructure as they take care of the pads they lease, it’s the serge in new rocket companies that are following them, that need all the pad renovations, most of them are dedicated small launchers at least for now, so their pad requirements are a lot simpler, mostly integration, tracking and a place to launch, but if any of them manage to achieve the rapid production, integration, and prep paired with high launch rate that has the potential to give dedicated small launchers a marketable service that larger more capable price competitive RLVs cant provide, then having the ranges ready for them is necessary, and if any of them want to move to bigger vehicles, you get the idea. I can see the small launchers complimenting the large RLVs in the LEO economy if the tracking, guidance, launch infrastructure can handle it, especially with a more launch friendly FAA and FCC.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    The launch pads are not part of the range costs the article talks about. The Air Force gives long term leases for the land on their base, and the commercial launch companies are responsible for any modifications and maintenance required in order for them to launch (or land). There are plenty of old pads that are no longer suitable for use. They should be restored to their original condition as Florida wet lands if possible.

  • Michael Halpern

    Maybe, one of those pads that became no longer suitable for use was turned into LZ 1 so they can still have value, and its the roads, plumbing, power, tracking and communications networking which everyone at the ranges needs, in addition anyone who wants to launch at high cadence will need at least 2 preferably close pads at the east range, initially as a spare, later to alternate between should rapid reusability and higher launch demand strain the typical turnaround time on a single pad, which means if the launch industry continues to grow, due to the orbit value of CC/KSC very few of the pads may remain unused.