Traffic Jam: Space Coast could see 3 launches in 8 days
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Three different rockets are expected to take to the skies from the Space Coast in as little as eight days. March 2017 is expected to be a busy month in a year that could see as many as 30 rockets lift off from one of the busiest spaceports in the world.
The last time the Eastern Range, which supports rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, was this busy was more than 20 years ago. As such, it is continuing to update its systems to meet an ever increasing demand.
Scheduled to fly first is the EchoStar 23 satellite on March 14 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. Next, on March 17, United Launch Alliance (ULA) will send into space the ninth Wideband Global SATCOM satellite atop its Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) rocket for the Department of Defense.
Finally, on March 21, Orbital ATK’s International Space Station-bound Cygnus cargo freighter will be launched atop a ULA Atlas V. All three of these missions reflect the growing intensity and diversity of Florida launch operations.
To top off an already busy second half of March, SpaceX is scheduled to fly an additional Falcon 9, the company’s first re-flown booster, as early as March 27. That would make four launches in less than two weeks.
These dates assume, of course, none of the launches suffer from a delay due to weather or technical issues. If one mission has to shift its liftoff date, other flights could be affected too.
While the U.S. Air Force cannot control the weather or technical issues with its customers’ rockets, they have been making improvements in cooperation with NASA to coordinate shared resources across the launch facility.
NASA’s Spaceport Integration Office has the challenging task of monitoring the use of the roads, range, nitrogen pipeline, and other shared resources to avoid conflicts, with the USAF being responsible for maintaining and operating many of those assets. Improvements such as the Falcon 9’s autonomous flight safety system (AFSS) and fewer ground staff on the Air Force side are reducing some of these conflicts.
The eventual goal will be for the Eastern Range to support up to 48 launches per year. It’s a good news / bad news scenario for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It is seeing more business than it has in more than two decades, but it also must prove its ability to meet the demands of defense, civil space, and commercial space sectors.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.