The launch industry is expanding at a rapid rate, which is great news for exploration, research, and development. Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, and the United Launch Alliance have all increased their launch activity dramatically when compared to prior years. Additionally, NASA and the US Air Force have also planned numerous missions.
While this is undoubtedly the way of the future, Florida’s Space Coast cannot keep up with the rapid rise in launches. There have already been numerous delays and scheduling conflicts, quite often putting the company inconvenienced through major expenses. There are very valid fears that these types of conflicts may only increase as time goes on.
To help reduce this type of congestion, the US Air Force has developed a strategy they call “Drive for 48.” The goal is to ensure that Cape Canaveral can support 48 launches a year, with only a two-week period set aside for maintenance, improvements, and refurbishing. They hope to see this goal achieved within the next five years.
At the moment, launches are not evenly spaced out, which is one of the major reasons for complications and conflicts. Other efforts by the Air Force include examining how closely launches can realistically be scheduled. If the technology can be developed to do so safely, representative see no reason why there cannot be two launches within the same 24-hour period. Reducing the time between launches increases the availability of launch services for other companies, who may lack the funds to compete with a major player like SpaceX.
The technology for fast, consecutive launches does exist, but only in a limited form. Vehicles that rely on autonomous flight termination can be launched with minimal downtime between each one. While SpaceX has incorporated this type of technology into its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy Rockets, other companies have been slower to adapt. The agency is not going to make autonomous flight termination a requirement but did strongly suggest it to other industry leaders at a luncheon held late last month.
The issue of back-to-back launches is somewhat controversial in the field. The Air Force is definitely interested in pursuing this concept further, while NASA and private companies including United Launch Alliance have serious concerns. These concerns focus primarily on the type of exposure rockets waiting to be launched could receive. For example, if an Atlas 5 was launched while a Flacon 9 was waiting to lift off, a launch failure could damage both rockets and contaminate both payloads.
Air Force representatives are also examining range safety and weather as part of their investigation in to how to manage Florida’s Space congestion. Instead of automatically delaying launches due to the presence of a plane or boat in the safety range or due to adverse weather conditions, officials plan to study the potential impact of those violations before cancelling or delaying the launch. If, for example, there is no chance of injuring any third parties, the launch could proceed despite the presence of a range violation.