The cosmic future is looming with a growing wave of launches. Launch pads become cramped for the space players' grand plans. In order not to get stuck on Earth in a narrow place, it is necessary to expand the passage into space - this is how the word "cosmodrome" is translated from the Greek. This, however, requires a fundamentally new way of thinking. How to open the gates to space - in our material.
Eastern polygon and its names
On the Atlantic coast of Florida, in the middle of the peninsula, there is the largest American spaceport. It is located mostly on Cape Canaveral, but the familiar name "Cape Canaveral" is vague. The cosmodrome began with the first launches in 1950 as a testing ground for ballistic missiles and since then has changed its name and status many times.
It tested rockets of various purposes, which were launched from fifty launch pads. Anti-aircraft and meteorological, intercontinental cruise missiles, submarine missiles, ballistic missiles of various ranges and bases. In addition, over a thousand launches of ballistic missiles from submarines were made from the adjacent water area, and the airspace was used to launch cruise carrier rockets. Therefore, the cosmodrome today remains primarily the Eastern Range, the largest in the United States.
With the growing number of space launches, Cape Canaveral was increasingly perceived as a cosmodrome - including all American manned space flights. In the early 1960s, NASA acquired territory on Merritt Island, adjacent to Cape Canaveral (across the Banana River), where the Kennedy Space Center was built for the space program for landing a man on the moon. The Cape Canaveral launch sites were operated by the military from the outset and were part of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, recently renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The Kennedy Space Center remains a NASA civilian facility, and both launch clusters continue to be part of the East Proving Ground. The number of launches from it was not always the largest in America - there will be at least a dozen years, in which the Western Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California held the lead in launches. In world comparison, the Florida cosmodrome usually took the second and third places in terms of the number of launches per year after Plesetsk and Baikonur.
Times change. For the past five years, the cosmodrome has been ranked first in the world in terms of the number of launches per year. At the same time, the strategic task of transferring the cosmodrome to a more intensive mode, approaching the airport's operating mode, arose in full growth. This will require new approaches to restrictions and permits for rocket flights, a new format for the cosmodrome.
20 kilometers south of the Cape Canaveral launch sites, on the ocean shore, is the General Patrick Space Force base (a recent Air Force base). It not only houses the headquarters of the Cape Canaveral base, but also the 45th space wing, which is comprehensively responsible for all launches from the Eastern Range. It also includes the 45th Weather Squadron. She does a tremendous job of controlling the environment around the test site, and it is she who issues recommendations for launches, including prohibiting ones, playing a key role in the decision "to be or not to be" a launch.
The specialists of this unit provide meteorological data to support launches from the entire Eastern Range.Based on their observations, the 45th Weather Squadron provides weather forecasts, recommendations on the launch date, and estimates possible thunderstorm activity. And it issues warnings about the boundaries of acceptable weather conditions for a particular type of missile that is planned to be launched. These limits are based on NASA's so-called weather launch criteria and are calculated for each type of launch vehicle.
Over the past year, Squadron 45 received 297 launch requests, of which 225 were approved, 55 reached the prelaunch countdown and ended with 32 launches. The most frequent reason for the post-launch was the weather.
Launches in the shackles of restrictions, or What prevents the rocket from taking off
Florida lies in the subtropical zone, so the air saturated with moisture and thermal energy always brings weather surprises. In a clear sky, in an hour, single cumulus clouds appear, in another hour they turn into thunderclouds, immediately erupting tropical showers with sharp and strong squalls. The author has seen more than once, near the cosmodrome, black columns of rain, diverging near the ground with a bell due to the spread of a powerful downdraft. These columns of rain, with a powerful cumulus cloud that generates them, are visible from several kilometers away. They spontaneously emerge inside the air mass, move on the ground and can approach launch sites at a critically close distance. This is how the Florida subtropical troposphere seethes, generously pumped by the energy of the sun, which stands almost at its zenith on summer noons.
The main danger of thunderclouds for a rocket is lightning. On the Florida space coast, they occur more often than at any other US spaceport.
A rocket taking off is a long, vertical conductor that rapidly rises closer and closer to the electric charge of the cloud. Plus, an exhaust column stretches behind it, retaining partial ionization and electrical conductivity. A ready-made lightning rod flies up to the clouds, pulling the exhaust cable behind it. Rockets with conductive surfaces and ionized exhaust gases are capable of distorting electric fields in clouds, causing a lightning strike that might not have happened without it. Lightning struck the launching rocket more than once - and it ended in different ways.
On November 14, 1969, during the launch of Apollo 12 with a crew (the second landing on the moon), the situation over the Kennedy Space Center was thunderous and extremely unfavorable. Wind gusts near the ground reached 26 meters per second, it was raining heavily. Launch director Walt Capriyan, who held this position for the first time, gave permission to start 13 minutes before zero second.
Takeoff began at estimated time. When detached from the launch platform, the rain intensified (including due to the acoustic field of the engines of the super-heavy Saturn-5, which reached 220 decibels - the loudest constant sound created by human products), after 15 seconds the rocket went into the clouds. At the 37th second of the flight, lightning struck her, passing through the carrier, the jet stream of the engines, the exhaust trail and the launch tower to the ground.
This caused a breakdown of the on-board electrical network with the disconnection of three fuel cells in the Apollo 12 service compartment. In the Apollo's command bay, the lights went out, most of the instrumentation failed, and the warning lights came on. Crew Commander Charles Konrad switched the rocket to the emergency control system.
At the 53rd second of the flight, the second lightning hit the carrier. The gyro-stabilized platform "Apollo-12" failed, an automatic discharge of the compartment with the crew was expected. But the lunar module pilot Alan Bean, on commands from Earth, was able to turn on the fuel cells. The rocket passed thunderclouds, the upper stage with Apollo-12 entered the reference orbit, the ship's gyroscopes were brought into working position, and the flight complex switched to the trajectory to the Moon. Launches in such thunderstorms were never carried out again, and the limitations on the meteorological conditions of the launch were revised.
The Atlas-Centaur rocket, launched from the US Navy's communications satellite in March 1987, was struck by lightning 49 seconds after the start of its flight. Atlas Centauri, known as AC-67, was less fortunate. Lightning caused a failure of the control and guidance system. The on-board computer issued an erroneous command to the engines, which sharply turned the carrier in the other direction, which led to the destruction of the rocket.
Not so long ago, on May 27, 2019, lightning struck the Russian Soyuz-2.1b rocket when launching the Glonac-M navigation satellite from the Plesetsk cosmodrome. In the end, the start was successful, there was no information about the damage.
To get a feel for the density of weather constraints, look at the weather requirements at the launch site for the Falcon 9 rocket, which is increasingly being launched against the severity of the constraints. Its start is canceled if:
- at an altitude of 49 meters above the launch pad, a steady wind blows at a speed of more than 56 kilometers per hour;
- wind shear is observed in the upper troposphere (it can cause problems with the control of the launch vehicle);
- during flight, the rocket will have to pass through a cloud layer more than 1400 meters thick, which spreads to the zone of negative temperatures;
- less than 19 kilometers from the site there are cumulus clouds with tops extending to the zone of freezing temperatures;
- less than 19 kilometers from the site is the edge of a thunderstorm in which lightning was observed within 30 minutes after the previous lightning;
- less than 19 kilometers from the site there is a thundercloud-anvil (a powerful cumulus cloud with a top flattened against the tropopause, the lower boundary of the stratosphere);
- less than 9, 3 kilometers from the site there are bad weather clouds, spreading to the zone of negative temperatures and containing moderate or more precipitation;
- less than 5, 6 kilometers from the site there are remnants of a disintegrated thundercloud;
- the rocket will have to fly through the cumulus clouds formed as a result of or directly associated with the smoke plume.
Also the launch should be delayed:
- for 15 minutes, if the readings of the electric field strength meter within 9, 3 kilometers from the launch pad exceed +/- 1500 volts per meter;
- for 30 minutes if lightning is observed within 19 kilometers of the launch pad or flight path.
In addition to the launch pad, weather conditions should be acceptable in the landing area of the first stage. This further narrows the start windows. When launching manned missions, the requirements for meteorological conditions are also put forward for several possible areas of emergency landing of a ship with a crew in the ocean, which stretch from Florida to Greenland.
The Falcon 9 launch is not limited to weather conditions alone. The use of supercooled fuel components requires refueling 35 minutes before starting so that the fuel components do not have time to heat up. If the start is postponed for two hours, then you will have to drain the heating components and refuel the tanks with supercooled fuel 35 minutes before the new start time.
The need to refuel the rocket reduces the launch window sometimes to just one second.
And if the launch in this single and cramped allotted second did not take place, the next launch window may not open soon. It depends on the mission and the required orbital ballistics. “The big problem is that many launches have to launch in that one specific second,” said Hans Koenigsmann, senior advisor and former vice president of assembly and flight reliability at SpaceX. “You don’t have much flexibility here, and even a small transfer may not give the right time. Five minutes later, the weather might be good, but that's not what you want for a particular orbit."
Big kurultai raises banners
All this leads to the impossibility in today's layouts of increasing the frequency of starts at times.The growing launching activity, on the contrary, requires a multiple increase in the ability to carry out launches. In order to resolve this conflict, the need is ripe for a deep and radical revision of the set of restrictions on launches, new approaches to the issuance of permits and the conduct of launches.
The 47th summit of the cosmodrome, formerly known as the Space Congress, which took place at the end of February, became an expression of this need. He brought together key executives and management teams from the Cape Canaveral Space Station, Kennedy Space Center, 45th Space Wing, and the FAA space division to discuss. Participants provided an overview and update on the state of the Florida spaceport and how to prepare for an even busier schedule compared to 2021. The main characters are experienced people who are well aware of the specifics of the Eastern Range, or who conducted many launches from it and personally commanded it, or who themselves several times sent from it on space flights.
In particular, the director of the Kennedy Space Center Bob Cabana (Bob Cabana, a former NASA astronaut, participant of four space flights on the shuttle) was joined by the director of the Eastern Range and the commander of the 45th space wing, Brigadier General Stephen J. Purdy Jr. and Wayne Monteith, FAA Assistant Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (retired Air Force Brigadier General, former Commander of the 45th Space Wing and Director of the Eastern Range).
These gentlemen discussed current affairs and the future of the Florida cosmodrome and agreed that the Eastern Range in the near future expects 60 launches per year (which, however, does not exceed the record 70 launches from Plesetsk in 1977). And by 2030, activity will increase to hundreds of launches per year and more. In light of these predictions, Mr Cabana, Mr Purdy and Mr Monteith discussed a turn towards a more airport-like launch support model capable of supporting one or two launches per day.
This is in line with SpaceX's goal of re-launching one launch vehicle within 24 hours. As Koenigsmann said, “Success is defined for us as going from a biweekly launch to a weekly launch and then to a daily launch with safe reuse of the same hardware. This is a difficult task. I think we are halfway to solving it."
Space Wing Commander Steven Pardee has assured that the Space Force wants to be able to approve all launch requests from the Eastern Range, providing companies with services more like airport operations than conventional government spaceports. According to him, this requires a new mentality and thinking. His subordinates study all elements of the launch support infrastructure - from transportation to electricity, communications, security, fuels and high pressure gases - "to figure out how to overcome any obstacles that limit us in achieving first-call launches." Likewise, airports give clearance for aircraft to take off.
What the transformation will consist of
Relaxation of weather restrictions.You can't change the weather over Florida. Warm as water in a bath, the Atlantic in these parts will always provide dense thunderstorm activity. In order to realize the planned flow of launches, it is necessary to relax the restrictions on weather, primarily on lightning. But real and practical emergency experience does not allow it to be done just like that. It is necessary to increase the resistance of missiles to lightning. This, in turn, will require additions in the design and equipment of missiles, which means an increase in their mass by at least a centner. But the search for solutions in this direction is obviously inevitable.
Dynamic planning.The 45th Space Wing is exploring the possibility of switching to automatic scheduling of the Eastern Range in order to handle more requests from launch operators (launch companies).Every request at the test site today requires many hours of coordination with security, weather and other groups, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which is to organize the clearance of the airspace above the launch site.
Dynamic planning, which distributes launches based on the results of preliminary preparation for them, will make it possible to build an unallocated launch grid in advance and carry out all preliminary work and approvals for them in advance, and then quickly draw up a specific schedule when launch operators request them. In this case, it is possible to quickly change and reshape the launch schedule of a particular operator, using free and not yet distributed "blanks" of launches.
Automatic flight termination. Pardee noted that the East Range will be able to make more launches with the introduction of automated flight termination systems. What is needed is rocket-flying equipment capable of autonomously determining if the carrier deviates from a pre-planned trajectory in excess of acceptable values.
In the event of a critical deviation from the course, the on-board automatic flight abort system will issue a command to interrupt the launch. The execution will be the detonation of several explosive charges in different places of the rocket, optimally placed for its rapid destruction.
SpaceX uses such an automated safety system in all of its launches. Space forces say that all other users of the test site should switch to this new technology by 2025. Traditional man-in-loop termination systems require a landfill safety officer to monitor the trajectory of a missile from the ground and then manually issue a command to destroy the missile if necessary.
Dual launch planning.To protect against delays due to weather conditions, strategies are considered to prepare for two different launch windows at once on a given day, if ballistic conditions permit. The same SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites in one orbital plane. The entire Starlink constellation contains 72 such orbital planes - and all of them require saturation with new satellites. Elon Musk's company may have two different flight plans for one launch, and launch managers have the right to choose the option with the best weather. Having missed a launch in one orbital plane, you just need to wait until the Earth turns to hit the delayed launch in another orbital plane. Taking into account the new filling with supercooled fuel components, of course.
Time does not wait - it comes
Why is SpaceX mentioned in the examples above? Today it is the most active company in terms of the number of launches at the Eastern Range. Its plans to organize the streams of launches act as a driver for the transformations of the cosmodrome in question. SpaceX is pressing on key organizations, and the first conflicts are already taking place - like the recent wars with the FAA over permits for test flights of Starship prototypes.
While this is still a different story, not related to the Florida spaceport, it is characteristic and shows how SpaceX has already begun to run into the old current framework of infrequent flights and complex issuance of launch licenses. Soon, these problems, having intensified by orders of magnitude, will grow on the Eastern Range - and everyone understands this well.
But SpaceX is not alone in pushing for spaceport transformations. Scott Henderson, Blue Origin's vice president of launch operations in Florida, also talks about dynamic gliding and automatic flight abort. Their New Glenn rocket is slated to launch from the LC36 launch pad at Cape Canaveral. And the pace of flights is quite intense.
Firefly Aerospace is in full swing developing two of its missiles, Firefly Alpha and Firefly Beta, and is also going to launch them from the Eastern Range. These intentions are supported by contracts received from NASA, including for the delivery of cargo to the Moon.
In the back of Blue Origin breathes - or perhaps overtakes it - Californian Relativity Space, which creates its own rockets: the disposable Terran 1 and the reusable Terran R. refurbishment and operation of the LC16 launch complex at Cape Canaveral, which in ancient times was used to launch Titan and Pershing ballistic missiles. In addition to these companies, more and more new players are rushing to the space scene, some of which will reach launches from the Eastern Test Site.
It would be naive to believe that the breakthrough to widespread access to space lies only in the creation of rockets. This is too one-sided to be correct. Wide spacewalk - multiple flights. This is the organization of the flow of permits for launches, the automation of many processes, dynamic scheduling of the flow of launches, a new approach to scheduling a specific launch, revision of a number of meteorological restrictions. It is impossible to get ahead in one, getting stuck in another.
Only a comprehensive solution to an array of tasks in all key segments will allow a fundamentally wider opening of the gates to space, opening them wide open. The Florida cosmodrome is about to turn into such a future - and, apparently, the transformation begins.