COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.–The head of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) remains concerned about the status of the service’s launch ranges as the Air Force prepares for as many as 40 launches at its Florida launch site.

“I continue to be concerned about the health of our range,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten said here Thursday at the National Space Symposium (NSS), citing aging eqiupment. “It’s very difficult to keep all that old equipment operating.” 

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 containing the EUTELSAT 115 West B and ABS-3A satellites on March 1. Photo: SpaceX.
SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 containing the EUTELSAT 115 West B and ABS-3A satellites on March 1, 2014. Photo: SpaceX.

The Air Force in recent years has dealt with launch site turbulence, ranging from slips due to equipment issues to the delayed award of a multi-billion dollar contract for range sustainment and a shift away from radar to metric rocket tracking. A tracking radar issue at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in 2014 delayed military and commercial launches.

A tracking radar overheated in March 2014 and delayed the the launch of a spy satellite 16 days. A pair of subsequent Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) launches, one for Orbcomm [ORBC] and another for NASA, were delayed a combined 29 days due to the overheating tracking radar. A SpaceX executive said the company had to absorb a financial hit due to one of the delays (Defense Daily, June 4).

The tracking radar issue came as the Air Force was transitioning to GPS metric tracking for launches, which allows the service to track the rocket’s flight in case it needs to terminate the rocket for safety reasons. The first launch to take place with GPS metric tracking, as opposed to traditional C-band radar tracking, took place on the GPS IIF-8 launch at Cape Canaveral on Oct. 29 (Defense Daily, Oct. 27).

Hyten during a speech here Tuesday proposed having an automated flight safety system for launch ranges in place by next year. He said Thursday the Air Force believes there is an automated capability it can use with redundant capabilities and military code capabilities that will give it higher confidence in launch tracking.

“[It] will give us higher confidence that we know exactly where that rocket is before we decide we have to decide to destruct it,” Hyten said. “My biggest fear is we’ll have a healthy rocket sometime and because we don’t know where it is, we have to blow it up.”

Hyten said the key to automated flight tracking–which he called “expensive,” but didn’t provide a figure–is leveraging commercial capabilities and bringing them to the range sooner. He said commercial customers are building that capability into the rocket because they understand they have to have that capability to operate in their business.

Hyten said Tuesday he wanted the automated flight safety system in place by 2016 when the range at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., goes down for a couple of months while U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) moves its space situational awareness Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) (Defense Daily, April 14). Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg are the two Air Force launch ranges.

The service in November awarded its Launch and Test Range Integrated Contract (LISC) just over five years after its request for proposals (RFP) was issued. Hyten said Tuesday’s SpaceX launch for a NASA cargo mission was the first to take place under LISC, which was awarded to a joint venture lead by Raytheon [RTN] in partnership with General Dynamics Information Technology [GD].