Military officials committed to keeping Cape Canaveral open for launches

Military officials say launches will continue at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but public viewing sites will be closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The military-run Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral remains ready to support upcoming launches — including an Atlas 5 flight Thursday — amid the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Tuesday.

The next launch scheduled from Cape Canaveral is set to take off Thursday, when a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carries a U.S. Space Force communications satellite into orbit. Preparations for that mission are on schedule, officials said Tuesday.

“We’re going to continue to do what we do best, which is provide assured access to space, while also taking care of our airmen and their families,” said Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, which oversees Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s Space Coast.

Schiess told reporters Tuesday that the Pentagon has directed military commanders to protect their teams during the coronavirus pandemic, while continuing critical missions and supporting the government’s response to fight the spread of the virus.

Personnel at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are required to be on duty during launches. At other times, Schiess said he has urged workers to telework where possible.

“We obviously can’t telework to do the launches, so we’ll be working those, as we have one coming up on Thursday,” Schiess said.

The Atlas 5 rocket is set for liftoff during a two-hour window opening at 2:57 p.m. EDT (1857 GMT) with the U.S. military’s sixth and final Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF, communications satellite.

“The Department of Defense priority is to continue the mission, so we’ll continue the mission,” Schiess said. “I can’t see it happening where they would say stop doing that. We may do more testing, more temperature testing, or something like that, but I think we have to have a significant population within the operations folks to be sick to have a situation where it would impact our launches.

“Obviously, if a launch provider had a similar situation where they had a bunch of individuals sick, that may impact their ability, but I don’t see that happening at any time right now,” Schiess said. “We have enough people that can back each other up that we believe we’re going to be able to continue the mission.”

Schiess said the Eastern Range is still able to support all of the planned launches from Cape Canaveral in the coming months.

The sixth AEHF satellite, seen here encapsulated inside the payload fairing of an Atlas 5 rocket, is scheduled for liftoff from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad Thursday. Credit: United Launch Alliance

There could still be delays due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions and other issues outside of the control of the military-run range. For example, stringent travel bans issued by the U.S. and Argentine governments have prevented key workers from traveling from Argentina to Cape Canaveral to support the launch of the country’s second radar observation satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

That has forced an indefinite delay in the launch from March 30.

Launches from some other spaceports have been suspended as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. The French space agency, CNES, suspended launch campaigns at the Guiana Space Center in South America, and Rocket Lab announced Tuesday that its next mission from New Zealand would be postponed due to concerns about the viral disease.

So far, no one at Patrick Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has tested positive for the COVID-19 viral disease, Schiess said. A contractor at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which lies next to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, has become the first employee at that facility to test positive, officials said.

The Kennedy Space Center is currently operating in Stage 3 of NASA’s Response Framework, in which non-essential personnel are under mandatory telework orders. Mission-essential employees are still working on site at Kennedy.

If Kennedy is elevated to Stage 4, the center would be closed to all workers except those required to “protect life and critical infrastructure.” In that case, NASA officials have said they would attempt to continue work on the Perseverance Mars rover, which is set for liftoff in July to travel to the Red Planet. If the rover misses its launch window in July and August this year, the next chance to launch the mission would be in 2022.

Schiess said the Eastern Range needs several hundred people to support a launch, and some missions require more range support than others.

For a launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which uses an autonomous self-destruct safety system, the Eastern Range requires “a little over 200 people,” Schiess said. “That’s operators, weather, engineers, communications, safety personnel, environmental … security forces, all of that.”

For a mission using a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rocket, which use ground-commanded flight termination systems, the Eastern Range calls up a staff of “well over 300 people,” Schiess said.

He said officials are rotating support crews from mission to mission, and limiting physical interactions between the teams.

“For instance if you are on the launch crew that’s doing the Advanced EHF mission that’s coming up (Thursday), then we would have a different crew for our next mission,” Schiess said. “Then we would limit the interaction between those two, actually try to keep those crews away from each other, and then we have enough folks at this time to back up all of those folks as well.

“So we don’t see any issues at this time,” he said. “If someone were to become sick that we would be able to handle the situation.”

Operators stationed inside control centers at Cape Canaveral for upcoming launches will spread out, Schiess said, allowing teams to practice social distancing.

The 45th Space Wing will postpone some training for future range controllers during Thursday’s launch to minimize the number of people in the range operations center, Schiess said.

“We’re scaling back,” Schiess said.

“Over the years we’ve lowered the number of people that we need for a launch, but our ops centers are still the same size,” he said. “So we’re doing social distancing within the ops center, trying to get folks to sit farther apart from each other, and wiping down their consoles.”

Schiess has directed members of the military and civilian workforce at the 45th Space Wing to self-quarantine if they feel symptoms associated with COVID-19. Medical teams at Patrick Air Force Base have administered tests to some personnel showing symptoms, but all of the tests returned so far have come up negative for COVID-19, Schiess said.

The coronavirus pandemic has also delayed the official renaming of Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, officials said. Both bases were expected to be renamed to mark the establishment of the U.S. Space Force, and will eventually jettison their Air Force names.

The 45th Space Wing typically prioritizes national security space missions, such as the launch of a military communications, navigation or reconnaissance satellite, first on the range. Then civilian government missions, such as launches of NASA science probes or crews and cargo to the International Space Station, receive second priority.

Schiess said he does not expect to have to allocate staff and range resources away from commercial missions to support critical national security missions.

“I don’t see that happening at all, but if we got to a point where we had to decide, we have a normal standard process where national security space takes precedence, followed by civil missions, and then followed by commercial (launches),” Schiess said.

Schiess said military officials are working with dozens of contractors required to support range operations. If Florida’s government issues a stay-at-home order — as other states have done — range employees with a federal badge should still be able to travel and from work, he said.

“At this time, we’re not expecting any issues, and everyone seems to be doing the same thing — trying to keep the mission going,” he said.

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