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Vandenberg team guides nation's critical launches

Posted: September 19, 2010

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Whether it's launching a national security payload with an Atlas 5 rocket Monday night or rehearsing for the West Coast debut of the mighty Delta 4-Heavy, these are active times for Vandenberg Air Force Base's 4th Space Launch Squadron.

"We perform better and are happiest when we are busy," Lt. Col. Brady Hauboldt, the squadron commander, said in an interview Friday.

Lt. Col. Brady Hauboldt. Credit: Air Force
The squadron's mission is overseeing the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles flown from Vandenberg carrying satellites into highly-inclined and polar orbits. Situated 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the base is the primary U.S. site to launch spacecraft into such advantageous vantage points.

The EELV program created the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 fleets to replace the military's older booster designs with modern and modular rocket families.

That transition even led to re-branding the 4th SLS.

"The 4th Space Launch Squadron was formed in 1994 to support Titan missions at Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 4, then re-chartered in 2003 to operate the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launch systems. Today, we execute Western Range Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle spacelift operations with a combined team of engineers, space operators, program managers and missile maintenance technicians," Hauboldt said.

About 100 people work in the squadron, including Air Force officers and enlisted personnel, civilians and engineering support contractors.

It takes years of work to ensure each rocket launch is conducted successfully, placing its cargo into the correct orbit for a long life to perform reconnaissance and monitor the world.

The squadron is positioned with vital roles and responsibilities to ensure the launches achieve that success:

  • Mission assurance. "Our mission assurance core competency is associated with checking and double-checking the countless procedures that occur here at the launch base. Rockets are not fully ready to launch when they leave factory. They come in here needing various states of integration, removal and replacement of parts and final installation and checkout of many more," Hauboldt says.

    "Our mission assurance technicians, missile maintainers by career field in the Air Force, oversee the United Launch Alliance procedures out at the pad to make sure everything goes smoothly. They document any deviations from those procedures, and that becomes part of the final mission assurance roll-up that occurs prior to launch."

  • Launch campaign integration. "That's bringing all of the diverse stakeholders in a launch campaign together," Hauboldt says.

    "Their job is to bring all of the elements of this launch campaign into a cohesive mission, get us ready for the readiness reviews and make sure all of the boxes are checked before we get to launch."

    The different groups involved in Monday's Atlas 5 flight, for instance, include rocket-builder United Launch Alliance, the program leaders at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, engineering help from the Aerospace Corp., the National Reconnaissance Office payload customer and facilitators at Vandenberg's 30th Space Wing.

  • Launch operations. "We provide the backbone of the launch operations team in support of the mission director, in this case, the director of the NRO's Office of Space Launch. We focus on two pieces of that day-of-launch team, and that's to provide launch vehicle support, as well as provide the interface with the launch base," Hauboldt says.

  • System sustainment. The squadron is the caretaker for the pads at Space Launch Complexes 3 and 6, where the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets are flown, plus it ensures the ground support is there to conduct the flights.

    "Our system sustainment responsibilities extend beyond just the launch pads. There's an expansive infrastructure here at Vandenberg that's required to support EELV operations. Everything from power, roadways for transportation, gaseous nitrogen and other commodity support we need to make sure is in place and as good as we can make it before launch. Today, I'm happy to report Vandenberg infrastructure is in the best shape it's been in many years," Hauboldt says.

    Vandenberg's first Atlas 5 launched in 2008. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News

    The Atlas 5 has launched twice before from Vandenberg, successfully carrying out the NROL-28 mission in 2008 and the DMSP F18 weather satellite last October. Both of those rockets encountered long stays on the pad for payload-related delays, but Monday's upcoming launch has experienced a relatively rapid journey toward liftoff.

    "As our third Atlas 5 mission, this launch represents a turning point in Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle operations here at Vandenberg," said Hauboldt.

    "Previous missions, including last year's launch of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft, have averaged more than 500 days of launch base processing. This launch campaign has included 337 procedures and countless inspections, completed in just over 120 days; proving the 30th Space Wing's responsiveness to integrate, process and test the Atlas 5 at a far higher rate."

    Hauboldt says his team expects to keep the pace going in preparation for its subsequent Atlas mission targeted for next spring carrying another classified National Reconnaissance Office payload.

    "Our next Atlas 5, just months away, will further show that we can continue this operations tempo in support of Atlas 5 customers coming to the Western Range and supporting our troops in harm's way around the world."

    Meanwhile, the Delta 4-Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 6 is undergoing an extensive series of demonstrations to iron out the bugs before the mammoth booster makes its inaugural West Coast blastoff in January with a spy satellite that the intelligence community is really counting on.

    The Delta 4-Heavy rocket is pictured here during a news media tour earlier this year. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now

    "We have had a very busy summer with two tanking tests behind us. We did have some challenges on our Wet Dress Rehearsal associated with some ground support equipment, which we are working through right now and (we are) working to reschedule that Wet Dress later this month," Hauboldt said.

    The tanking tests were aimed at exercising the procedures to load the triple-barrel rocket with supercold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel. The WDR follows a realistic launch day script to practice the countdown timeline.

    Vandenberg performed a pair of Delta 4 launches with the rocket's Medium-style variants in 2006 for the NROL-22 mission and the DMSP F17 satellite.

    Hoping all their efforts for the Atlas 5's NROL-41 mission are rewarded with a flawless launch Monday night, the squadron members know they won't have much time to celebrate. Focus quickly turns to finish the final months of work on the Heavy and welcoming the next Atlas 5 when it is delivered to Vandenberg in the next 60 days.

    "The team has really come together in getting ready for this mission, in particular, but building a strong team that will carry us into the Delta 4-Heavy after the New Year and an Atlas launch again in the spring. It's an exciting time at the 4th Space Launch Squadron."