The Space Coast this year could see as many as 30 launches by a more diverse group of rockets, launching from more pads than last year and even from a runway.
And look out for incoming space vehicles, including the potential first touchdown at Kennedy Space Center by a classified military mini-shuttle and more SpaceX attempts to land Falcon rocket stages, following the company’s historic first booster landing on Dec. 21.
“We’ve gotten comfortable that in the future the flyback concept is here, it’s something we’re going to work with,” said Col. Eric Krystkowiak, commander of the 45th Launch Group at the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.
Speaking to several hundred guests at the National Space Club Florida Committee’s meeting Tuesday at the Radisson Resort at the Port, Krystkowiak would not predict an exact number of launches in 2016 but said it could be “up to 30 or more.”
That would easily eclipse last year’s total of 18 launch operations, which was the busiest year since 2009, according to the 45th Space Wing.
Planned launches include up to a dozen by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, carrying big-budget national security payloads and a NASA mission to retrieve an asteroid sample. The powerful Delta IV Heavy is slated to lift one intelligence mission.
ULA is stacking the Atlas V rocket scheduled to launch this year’s first mission from Cape Canaveral, a planned Feb. 3 liftoff with a Global Positioning System satellite.
This fall could see a flight for NASA by Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket, which takes off under an aircraft and launches from the sky. It would be the first Pegasus launch here in more than 13 years.
Most of the remainder of the launch schedule would be filled out by SpaceX, which hopes to exceed last year’s total of seven launch attempts (six successful).
Those missions include a battery of commercial satellites and more cargo runs to the International Space Station.
SpaceX expects to activate of a second local launch pad, adding historic pad 39A, a former Saturn V and shuttle pad, to its existing Launch Complex 40 site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
At KSC the company hopes to introduce its long-awaited Falcon Heavy, which will become the world’s most powerful rocket, featuring three first-stage boosters. SpaceX may try to land two of those boosters on land and the third at sea.
Krystkowiak praised Air Force and other officials who helped analyze the risks posed by the first booster flyback in December. Air Force officers stood ready to destroy the returning stage if it lost control.
“It’s been a while since you kind of think about something flying back towards you that might hurt people and break things,” he said. “But the community worked together.”
The landing rocket stage produced a loud sonic boom that “definitely scared some people,” Krystkowiak said, and shook equipment in some facilities. But he said the Air Force was comfortable proceeding with additional landing tries.
Another possible “first” in the year ahead could be a landing on KSC’s former space shuttle runway by the Air Force’s X-37B mini-shuttle, launched last May.
The unpiloted space plane’s activity in orbit and its landing plans are secret. But Krystkowiak said analysis showed that any potential landing in Florida — after three landings in California — would be “orders of magnitude less risk than even with a shuttle landing back in the day.”
The program operated by Boeing is now based in former shuttle hangars at KSC.
In other potential launch activity this year, the Navy could perform classified test launches from submarines of Trident II D5 ballistic missiles. At least one developer of a small rocket, Firefly Systems, has said it hopes to perform a suborbital launch from a new pad at KSC.
Launch schedules change so frequently due to rocket and spacecraft issues that totals often fall short of early-year projections.
But the trend is toward growing numbers of launches with more emphasis on commercial missions, part of what Krystkowiak said was a historic transformation on the Space Coast.
“We’re in a transitional, transformational time in our history, where we’re looking to the entrepreneurial, commercial spirit to really bring that spaceport of the future,” he said.
The 45th Space Wing’s vision is to be the world’s premier gateway to space, he said, and “that gateway is changing on many fronts.”
The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing expects up to host 30 or more rocket launch operations in 2016, considerably more than any recent year:
- 2015: 18
- 2014: 16
- 2013: 10
- 2012: 11
- 2011: 10
- 2010: 11
- 2009: 19
Source: U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing
The National Space Club Florida Committee on Tuesday presented Air Force Capt. John Richmond with its 2016 Forrest S. McCartney National Defense Space Award.
During a 10-month program working as a liaison with United Launch Alliance, Richmond championed initiatives expected to save the government $20.5 million per year, according to the space club, including a time-saving change in the way ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket is prepared for launch by integrating more components away from the launch pad.