Spaceflight Insider

AFSPC-5: Setting sail on wings of light

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 rocket with the U.S. Air Force's X-37B spacecraft lifts off on the AFSPC-5 mission at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT). Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 rocket with the U.S. Air Force's X-37B spacecraft lifts off on the AFSPC-5 mission at 11:05 a.m. EDT (15:05 GMT). Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — With dire weather predictions as well as terror threats looming over Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41), the United States Air Force and United Launch Alliance unleashed the 501 version of the venerable Atlas V booster at 11:05 a.m. EDT (15:05 GMT) – the very opening of the first of two 10-minute long launch windows (each 87 minutes apart). The payload for the launch vehicle was the U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane. The automated spacecraft had a payload of its own – both classified and public.

Threats uttered by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organization caused military bases to go on a heightened (Bravo) state of alert due to the heightened national Force Protection Condition (FPCON ) Bravo threat level. This included Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As such, special restrictions were in place which did not allow for the normal viewing of the flight.

ULA United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 AFSPC 5 LightSail ULTRASat X-37B photo credit Mike Deep SpaceFlight Insider

Kicking up a massive plume, the Atlas V 501 launched into mostly-clear skies at the very opening of the first of two 10-minute launch windows. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

“Both Patrick AFB and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station implemented these changes in security as part of a NORTHCOM-wide directive. FPCON Bravo applies when an increased or more predictable threat of terrorist activity exists. Although we do not anticipate an imminent threat here, the intent of this directive is to ensure random antiterrorism measures are conducted at an unpredictable frequency. This change in force protection was also initiated to establish a proactive, unpredictable frequency of actions to mitigate any potential threats to our installation and protect all personnel, assets, resources and infrastructure,” said Shawn M. Walleck, Chief of Public Affairs for the 45th Space Wing. “People wanting to enter the base should expect delays at all access points for both installations. We do apologize for any inconveniences this may cause; however, our goal is to ensure vigilance and readiness. Remaining in an unpredictable state as our new normal helps us achieve these force protection standards.”

The Atlas V rocket and X-37B spacecraft were rolled out to the launch pad from the adjacent Vertical Integration Facility at about 9:04 a.m. EDT (13:04 GMT).

ULA United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 AFSPC 5 LightSail ULTRASat X-37B photo credit Mike Deep SpaceFlight Insider

Bright as a blowtorch, flames roar out of the two nozzles that direct the thrust from the single RD-180 rocket engine. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

This mission has been called both the AFSPC-5 as well as Orbital Test Vehicle 4 (OTV 4). Prior flights of the X-37B mini shuttle were only dubbed “OTV” and then the number of the flight. Some mention has been made that this is OTV 4, but the mission has most frequently been called AFSPC-5. When asked about the reason for the change, representatives with ULA told SpaceFlight Insider that it was carried out as a request from the customer (the U.S. Air Force).

While all prior payloads that the X-37B carried to orbit have been classified, this one carried at least two public experiments (albeit as a secondary payload affixed to the Centaur upper stage). Encased in eight Poly-Pico Orbital Deployers (P-PODs) attached to the Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat ) were 10 CubeSats. These were constructed by the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. Each of the P-PODS are encased into a structure built by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, CA.

Seven of the eight P-PODS contain nine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) sponsored CubeSats and the ninth has a NASA-sponsored satellite.

United Launch Alliance (ULA ) utilized the 501 configuration of the Atlas V booster to get the X-37B spacecraft off the pad and on its way into the black. What this means is that the launch vehicle utilized a payload fairing (PLF) measuring some five meters in diameter, that it had no solid rocket boosters powering the Atlas aloft, and that it had a single-engined (RL10C-1) Centaur in its upper stage.

OTV Orbital Test Vehicle AFSPC 5 X_37B diagram image credit Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

Centaur has a rather lengthy history and has been used to launch spacecraft to every planet in the Solar System, to the Moon, and to the dwarf planet Pluto.

Today’s flight began at 11:05 a.m. EDT (15:05 GMT) with the Atlas V lifting off from the launch pad and into the almost clear blue skies above. It was feared that the turbulent Florida weather would cause the mission to be scrubbed. However, in the end, the launch of AFSPC-5 was underway.

United Launch Alliance_atlas_v_afspc5-carleton_bailie

This marked the fourth flight of one of the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital Test Vehicle automated shuttles. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

Without the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A solid rocket boosters to help push the booster’s stack off of the pad, the flight slowly raised into the sky. Within about a minute-and-a-half, the flight encountered a critical phase of the mission. At this stage, the rocket was traveling uphill through what is known as the region of maximum dynamic pressure or “max-Q”. At this point, the rocket’s own speed actually conspires with the air pressure outside to place it under the greatest amount of stress that the vehicle encountered on the road to orbit.

At about three minutes and 45 seconds into the flight, having served its purpose, the PLF was jettisoned and left to fall back to Earth.

The Planetary Society's Bill Nye The science guy LightSail X-37B AFSPC 5 OTV 4 United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 photo credit Mike Deep SpaceFlight Insider

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” was on hand on May 19 to provide details about The Planetary Society’s LightSail experiment. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

By about nineteen minutes into the flight, placed on the proper trajectory by the Centaur upper stage, the X-37B and its payload were on their way and beginning to carry out the parameters of the AFSPC-5 mission. Information received from ULA and USAF sources have the mission lasting an estimated 220 days. If that is the case, it will be the shortest mission to date.

With the successful launch of AFSPC-5, ULA has completed 96 missions since the company was formed in 2006 from elements originating at Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This is the fifth flight overall that ULA has conducted this year alone and the 54th time that the Atlas V has been launched since its first flight in 2002.

“The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” said ULA’s Vice President for Atlas and Delta Programs, Jim Sponnick.

The launch site itself has seen marked changes since the flight of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission in March of this year. Preparations for this flight are not the only work underway at the launch site. A new Crew Access Tower is currently being constructed near SLC-41.

Boeing Crew Service Access Tower Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Workers for Boeing Defense, Space & Security (BDS) and United Launch Alliance are deep into construction of the first two tiers of the new crew access tower for Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Boeing and United Launch Alliance are building the tower so astronauts and ground support teams can access the CST-100 spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station. Offsite construction of the tiers was essential to be able to sustain the launch schedule of the Atlas V rocket – which will carry the CST-100 – and still provide a human-rated service structure NASA needs for its Commercial Crew flights. Photo and Caption Credit: NASA

For their part, The Planetary Society is planning on using the lessons learned from the prior launch of a LightSail demonstrator. This launch is only the first part in what is planned as an overarching strategy to test out and validate this nascent technology.

“In 2005 we flew a solar sail on a Russian submarine rocket, and that mission is in the Bering Sea, which is a region of the Arctic Ocean, that is to say, it crashed – ha, ha,” Nye said with a sad smile. “So now ten years after that, we got it back together and we will be flying on a real Atlas V – not a leftover Cold War rocket and I am very excited about this, it has been 39 years in the making.”

United Launch Alliance ULA OTV 4 AFSPC 5 Atlas V 501 rocket X-37B atlas_v_afspc5-michael_howard

Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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Congratulations to ULA and the USAF on a successful launch!

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