Space Commander: Launch Facilities 'Old and Creaky'
The U.S. government is poised to welcome new rocket providers, but the leader of Air Force Space Command said April 14 the nation's launch pads may not be able to accommodate them.
"Our ranges are structured today not to support this kind of business," Air Force Gen. John Hyten said at the Space Symposium. "They are old. They are creaky. ... [and] fragile." Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California will not support the manifests of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance's newly announced Vulcan family of rockets.
The cape is doing about 40 launches this year but that is the maximum it can handle, he noted.
"We have to build an automated flight safety system and get that approved," he said. The Air Force has asked for funds since at least 2008 to modernize the system, but with commercial suppliers ready to provide competition for both the military and private sector launches, now it is imperative, he said.
Vandenberg will be shut down next year for a few months to accommodate a new command and control structure. When it reopens, it's his goal to have a new, modern flight safety system up and running, he said.
"If an industry partner wants to come in with a automated flight safety system before then, we will work with them to get it certified," he said.SpaceX last year announced that it will build its own launch facility near Brownsville, Texas, exclusively for its commercial customers.
Another concern are accidents, Hyten said. ULA on April 13 announced its new Vulcan family of launch vehicles, which will join SpaceX's Falcon series. The one challenge that he has asked about and not received an answer yet is what happens when one of those two providers has an accident.
"It will happen again. It's the nature of the business," he said. After an accident, the rocket is grounded for up to two and a half years as the cause is investigated and a remedy is found.
"I'm not going to stand up and put a billion-dollar satellite on a rocket if I don't know if it's going to work," he said. The company that suffered the accident may have to give up launches to its rival. "How do they stay in business with the other competitor launching and launching and launching?" He asked. He has queried his staff, and the presidents of all the major launch providers about this scenario, and not received an answer, he said.
"We have to understand before we get there how we are going to return to fly, who makes that decision, and what's the business case ... And I don't know how to do that yet," he said.
Sequestration returning in fiscal year 2016 is another problem that looms large, Hyten said.
The year 2013 was devastating for Space Command's civilian workforce, he said. There have been no raises, in addition to furloughs and layoffs. "It is unbelievable what we have done to our civilian workforce," Hyten said.
If sequestration returns in 2016, the command will cut launches and weapon systems sustainment, and eliminate the space-based infrared mobile ground system program, which is part of the nuclear command-and-control architecture, he said.
Further, a large number of civilian contractors have already been laid off. If sequestration returns, "We are going to hit the bone," he said. "And that is a bad thing for the nation, a bad thing for the world," he added.