USAF Completes “Summer of Launch” Campaign, Shifts Focus to Innovative Small Launchers

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying 24 satellites as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission launches from Launch Complex 39A, Tuesday, June 25, 2019 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — With the August 22 launch of Lockheed Martin’s GPS III SV02 satellite aboard the final Delta IV Medium+ (4,2) launch vehicle, the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise marked the successful completion of a rigorous Summer launch schedule.

Launching four critical missions in under 60 days from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, SMC/LE’s “Summer of Launch ’19” campaign showcased several innovative firsts and concluded with the end of an era.    

The campaign began June 25 with the Rocket Systems Launch Program’s late night launch of the Space Test Program (STP)-2 mission on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy from NASA’s historic Launch Complex 39A. The second successful SpaceX mission under the Orbital Suborbital Program (OSP)-3 contract marked the first Air Force mission to fly with previously flown boosters. Not only did this afford valuable insight into the launch vehicle reuse process, it was also a validation flight for Falcon Heavy under the National Security Space Launch’s new entrant program. All 24 satellites were successfully deployed to their intended orbits and are now operational. 

July 2 saw the successful Ascent Abort (AA)-2 mission for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral AFS. This mission used a custom-built Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems Abort Test Booster, employing a refurbished Peacekeeper ICBM motor, to test NASA’s Launch Abort System for their future crewed Orion spacecraft. This ATB, the last vehicle to launch under RSLP’s Sounding Rocket Program (SRP)-3 contract, hit NASA’s test point perfectly, placing the Orion test article at the crucial flight condition to maximize test values and prove the abort system is astronaut-ready. The Peacekeeper ICBM motor performed as designed, and RSLP personnel are very proud of their contribution to NASA’s crewed spaceflight program.

On August 8, the multi-payload Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)-5 mission accomplished another first for the NSSL program. Lifting off just before sunrise from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral AFS and aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551, the mission’s 12-unit CubeSat secondary payload deployed before the primary payload. This deployment sequence is a game-changer for future Air Force multi-mission payloads as it creates new rideshare opportunities for smaller National Security Space payloads requiring different orbits than a mission’s primary payload. It also drives schedule flexibility and responsiveness into the NSS mission planning process, shortening the timeline for NSSL to deliver capability to the warfighter.

The last NSSL mission of the Summer of Launch ‘19 campaign saw the final Delta IV Medium+ (4,2) “single-stick” flight lift off from Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Riding more than 1.2 million pounds of thrust from a hydrogen-fueled main engine and two strap-on solid rocket motors, it carried the GPS III SV02 satellite, named “Magellan” into orbit. The launch marks the end of an era for the venerable Delta IV Medium rocket that has successfully launched 25 NSS satellites since 2003. The 100 percent success rate of NSSL with 78 consecutive missions is a testament to the hard work, thorough inspection, and constant focus on mission assurance the Launch Enterprise team places on every mission.

SMC’s Launch Enterprise is not just about large launch vehicles. The Rocket Systems Launch Program, located on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, manages the Department of Defense’s small launch capability. Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, SMC’s chief of Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland, currently leads the successful program, which boasts 717 successful orbital, suborbital, and target launches since its inception in 1963. 

In addition to the STP-2 and Ascent Abort-2 launches this summer, RSLP is working closely with emerging small launch providers to demonstrate responsive launch capabilities. On Sept. 9, 2019, RSLP awarded the Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer (ASLON)-45 mission to Aevum using the Small Rocket Program-Orbital (SRP-O) framework.  The SRP-O framework provides orbital small launch services for payloads less than 400 pounds to Defense Department and other Government agencies for operations, research, development, and test missions. SRP-O missions directly support the warfighter and will demonstrate new weapon system technologies and concepts.

“The small launch arena is the perfect opportunity to challenge our industry partners with higher risk, higher reward missions,” said Rose. “In addition, our streamlined acquisition approaches allow us to operate in this dynamic, small launch industry.”

“The Small Rocket Program-Orbital approach affords us the opportunity to seek out new innovations in space launch with the intent of applying proven technologies to other space launch areas,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, SMC’s director of Launch Enterprise. “With the rising demand for small launch, I believe this team’s relevance will only grow.

Over the coming weeks and months, the Small Launch team will award more contracts to demonstrate innovative and responsive launch solutions. For example, the Orbital Services Program (OSP)-4 contract, the follow-on to OSP-3, and scheduled to be awarded this month, allows for the rapid acquisition of launch services for payloads greater than 400 pounds, enabling launch to any orbit within 12-24 months from task order award.  

“The small launch team is pioneering a wide range of industry partnerships for novel space launch technologies, all while preparing for their next Minotaur launch in February 2020,” said Bongiovi. “Suffice to say, there is nothing ‘small’ about SMC’s small launch mission!”