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April 16, 2014—Air Force Space Command airmen last week launched a National Reconnaissance Office intelligence satellite from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. The successful launch was treated as routine, but it quietly marked a significant milestone in USAF launch history.

It was the Air Force’s 100th consecutive successful national security space launch, a string of successes that dates back to 1999.

The April 10 United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, dubbed NROL-67, marked the second Atlas V launch from the Cape in 2014 and the 81st for ULA since the consortium was established in December 2006 between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The launch also was the second successful military space launch in April, as a Defense Department weather satellite was launched in California a week earlier.

“I am proud of the persistence and focus of the launch team, the wing, NRO, ULA, and other mission partners to make this launch happen,” said Brig. Gen. Nina Armango, 45th Space Wing commander, in a statement.

“Successfully launching two missions from two different coasts in just seven days is a testament to the team’s one launch at a time focus and ULA’s commitment to mission success and schedule reliability,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas and Delta Programs.

The NSS launch count has been a mark of pride in the space community for years. USAF hit its 50th consecutive launch in March 2007 when six experimental satellites were launched from Cape Canaveral aboard another Atlas V. In 2013 alone, USAF successfully put the fifth and sixth Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) birds, the third Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite (AEHF), a fourth GPS II-F satellite, and the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-2 on orbit.

Under Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told reporters March 5 that in Fiscal 2015 USAF plans 10 more launches and will pursue “potential new entrants” to the launch enterprise.

With defense spending under severe pressure and scrutiny, however, USAF’s leadership frequently points to military space launch as an unequivocal success. The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, begun in 1995 as a way to ensure US military access to space, increase reliability, and lower costs in the long run, has been both successful and expensive in recent years. The program uses Delta IV and Atlas V booster rockets and it is a perfect 81-for-81 in national security space launches since the United Launch Alliance was established in 2006. Meanwhile, the cost of operating EELV has crept up.

A large block buy was completed last year to try and get costs under control. At around $180 million a shot, the launches are not cheap. The cost of a failure would, of course, be much higher both financially and in terms of mission impact.

“We have used competition, long term contracts ... and good understanding of costs to get better deals for the government,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said of the EELV program in a written statement to lawmakers April 2.

“We must maintain our commitment to mission assurance that has resulted in unprecedented success,” they wrote. At the time, there had been a total of 98 National Security Space launches. The weather satellite was slated to launch the next day, but James and Welsh said “we know the only launch that matters is the next one.”

 

The Bad Old Days

The Air Force’s launch success streak goes back nearly fifteen years. It is almost shocking how quickly USAF turned things around. The string of successes began suddenly, and ended a frustrating and expensive period marked by several extremely high profile space launch failures.

On April 30, 1999, a Titan IV rocket carrying a MILSTAR II satellite out of the Cape successfully launched but failed to deploy the first USAF Block 2 MILSTAR payload. The satellite was left on a useless orbit, and represented the third straight Titan IV failure.

The MILSTAR II was, at the time, USAF’s most advanced communications satellite and the event was the Cape’s single most expensive unmanned rocket launch failure in 50 years of operations. The total cost of the satellite and launch totaled $1.23 billion.

That final failure came less than a month after an April 9, 1999, segment separation failure on another Titan rocket. That mishap left a missile warning satellite on a useless orbit.

The previous summer, on Aug. 4, 1998, a Titan IV rocket launching from the Cape exploded 41 seconds into flight. The launch vehicle and an $800 million classified intelligence satellite were destroyed. A subsequent USAF investigation concluded the rocket’s electrical system was damaged before launch.

The failures were jarring for USAF’s space community. In May 1999, then Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters asked for a sweeping review of the military space launch business, along with the NRO and USAF’s civilian contractors.

Gen. William Shelton, AFSPC commander, in an April interview with Air Force Magazine, said the turnaround can be traced to a 1999 Broad Area Review of the launch enterprise, which was chaired by former USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch.

The review, Shelton said, showed the Air Force “had drifted away from tried and true mission assurance practices of the past.” Some of this was related to acquisition reform efforts, but in other areas it was based on “trying to cut costs in mission assurance,” he said. As a result of the review, USAF implemented a number of launch business process changes, such as increased independent reviews, improved systems engineering, and better USAF oversight of contractor mission assurance activities.

“We have literally gone back to basics on the launch business, ensuring we maintain adequate mission assurance, and conducting hard nosed reviews leading up to every launch,” Shelton said.

 

Every Launch is a First

The focus on mission assurance is one reason why AFSPC officials now downplay the streak. Shelton noted that today, every space launch is looked at as “our first in the sequence, not the latest in a long string of successes.” USAF’s record since 1999 “speaks to the efficacy of this approach,” he said.  

The NSS launch mission supports a wide spectrum of military and civilian agencies activities on orbit, one of the reasons why it is often difficult to get an agreement between stakeholders on the mission count.

According to AFSPC officials, the National Security Space launch count includes AFSPC launches, Missile Defense Agency missions, US Navy satellite launches, and missions for other agencies with dual-purpose satellite launches. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites are also included. NRO payloads count, as do missions supporting DOD agencies under what are dubbed “national security missions.”

The count does not include NASA missions, sub orbital launches, commercial satellite launches, research and development, or civilian scientific missions. Following these criteria, and the public statements of senior USAF officials, the April 3 launch of the DMSP-19 mission at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., carrying a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program payload onto orbit, was the 99th launch, with the 100th following seven days later.

Shelton said he believes USAF builds “just enough, just in time to keep our constellations healthy.” But unlike other capabilities, AFSPC does not build excess capacity to compensate for attrition, and does not plan for failure of the launch vehicle or the satellite itself. One of the reasons USAF is slashing the number of planned “competitive” space launches in its five-year plan is due to the longer lifespan of some of those assets.

But the danger is not just in launching payloads anymore, he notes. “We must become more resilient, not only to failure but also to attack,” Shelton said. There are a number of USAF studies under way to decide how to balance on-orbit needs with “affordability and resilience,” he said, taking into account concepts such as disaggregating payloads, using different orbits, co-hosting payloads on commercial satellites, or joining with allied nations’ satellites. All of these concepts are being considered for an “alternative architecture” for the future.

The EELV launch program has come under recent criticism for cost growth. A March Government Accountability Office report said program cost grew some $22 billion between 2012 and 2013, a 78 percent increase over its prior year numbers. The vast majority of the increase was due to USAF buying 60 additional boosters, but $6 billion in cost growth came from extending the program’s life cycle by a decade.

The report also noted EELV had incurred a Nunn-McCurdy Act cost growth breach in 2012, which prompted a program restructuring. This also drove the Air Force to examine additional launch service providers—such as California-based SpaceX, which still awaits USAF certification for competition with its Falcon 9 heavy lift launch vehicle. 

In a March testimony, James emphasized that USAF’s launch success should not be traded against mission assurance. Critical national security payloads require stringent controls.

In a nod to the lessons of 1990s, James said the Air Force seeks to lower costs in the long term but is not willing to take chances.

“Some [launches] have almost catastrophic consequences” if they fail, she said. “There would be huge military significance.”