Spaceflight Now: B-41 Launch Report

U.S. Air Force Titan 4 carries out $1.2 billion mission

Posted: February 27, 2001

A sophisticated military communications switchboard-in-the-sky that promises to revolutionize the amount of information available to U.S. soldiers on the battlefield was successfully placed into Earth orbit Tuesday in a picture-perfect Titan 4 rocket launch.

Titan 4 rocket blasts off from Complex 40. Photo: Russ Underwood, Lockheed Martin Space Systems
Running two hours and 23 minutes behind schedule because of nagging ground support equipment problems, the countdown clocks at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Complex 40 finally reached zero at 4:20 p.m. EST (2120 GMT).

The twin solid rocket boosters fired to life in an Earth-shaking display of pure power, each releasing 1.7 million pounds of thrust as the rocket soared into a clear Florida afternoon sky.

Two-and-a-half minutes later, the solids had burned all their propellant and peeled away from the Titan 4. The vehicle's first stage had ignited just seconds before to continue the push to space.

The protective nose cone was jettisoned just shy of four minutes into flight, no longer needed to shield the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay satellite cargo riding atop the launcher. The first stage shut down and ignition of the second stage occurred five-and-a-half minutes after takeoff.

The role of the Titan 4 -- America's most powerful unmanned rocket -- was completed less than 10 minutes after the flight began when the Centaur upper stage with the attached satellite cargo were deployed.

The rocket heads downrange. Photo: Lockheed Martin TV/Spaceflight Now
From that point forward, the fate of the $800 million Milstar 2-F2 satellite rested fully with the high-energy rocket motor as it fired three times to propel its precious cargo to geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth's equator.

The Centaur appears to have worked normally, a vindication for the Air Force and Lockheed Martin after the last Milstar was lost in a launch failure two years ago because faulty software was loaded into the upper stage's control system.

From its orbital perch, this fourth Lockheed Martin-built Milstar satellite will serve as a central relay station for the most vital U.S. government communications across North and South America.

"I call it the FedEx of communications systems. When it absolutely, positively has to be there, Milstar is the system," said Brig. Gen. Craig Cooning, the Air Force's program executive officer for space.

Controllers will "park" the Milstar craft at 90 degrees West longitude over the equator where it can act as a proving ground for the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood as the military tries to become a "digitized fighting force."

This satellite -- like the one lost in 1999 -- features a quantum leap forward in capabilities over the older Milstars lofted in 1994 and 1995. The data transmissions have jumped from 75 to 2,400 bits per second to 1.5 megabits per second, which is significantly faster than your PC modem.

An artist's concept of a Milstar satellite in space. Photo: Lockheed Martin Force
Launched like a neat, compact box, the new Milstar will spread its wings in the next couple of days, stretching to 51 feet across. This event will unveil the so-called Medium Data Rate package of eight antennas that will give users significantly improved communications. The satellite's right wing carries the proven Low Data Rate payload while the left one is dedicated to MDR.

It will take several months for the satellite to be put through the rigors of testing. And if its enhanced capabilities work as advertised, the way U.S. troops fight war will be forever changed.

Cooning says during the Desert War Army soldiers had to go to the highest hilltops to receive communications and their movements were limited.

But with Milstar's advancements, Cooning says the troops will be able to "move at will across the battlefield in any direction."

This updated Milstar system with MDR promises to give mobile and fast-moving military vehicles and foot soldiers the ability to quickly receive information via overhead satellites with hand-held terminals.

The Army wants its commanders, strategic planners and shooters to gather and rapidly share information like maps, video and reconnaissance information in real-time transmissions. Similar modernization plans for the other branches of the military are linked to the success of Milstar.

Milstar acts as a smart switchboard in space, allowing users on foot, ships, submarines or aircraft to establish critical communications networks on the fly. The communications are secure, jam-resistant and have a low probability of being intercepted.

The mission patch for this launch. Photo: Lockheed Martin
The craft also feature satellite-to-satellite crosslinks to provide worldwide connectivity without the use of vulnerable and expensive ground relay stations. Four Milstars are needed to provide complete global coverage.

Two more Milstars are left to launch -- one slated for December (at the earliest) and the other in September 2002.

The pricey Milstar project was born in the Cold War era. It was initially designed to relay nuclear attack orders and provide a survivable communications link for the president in an all-out war at slow transmission rates.

But times change and Milstar has too.

Tuesday's launch marked the 31st for a Titan 4 rocket dating back to 1989 and the ninth flight of the newer Titan 4B model. It was the 13th mission of a liquid-fueled Centaur upper stage on a Titan 4. And was the 21st Titan 4 to launch from Cape Canaveral, the 11th from Complex 40.

This Titan 4 rocket was nicknamed "Gus" in honor of the fallen astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom.

"He was one of the original Mercury 7 and the first Air Force astronaut to fly," said Capt. Reece Stephenson, of the Air Force's 45th Operations Support Squadron. "That's why I nicknamed the Titan booster after him."

There are now eight more Titan 4s left to fly through 2003 -- five from Cape Canaveral and three from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The next Titan 4 is planned for July when a Defense Support Program missile-warning satellite is to be lofted from Cape Canaveral. A classified launch of a National Reconnaissance Office payload from Vandenberg -- originally set for May -- has been delayed indefinitely because of an unspecified problem with the spacecraft.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Titan 4B/Centaur
Payload: Milstar 2-F2
Launch date: Feb. 27, 2001
Launch window: 1857-2257 GMT (1:57-5:57 p.m. EST)
Launch site: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral AFS, Florida

Video vault
The Air Force Titan 4B rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral with the fourth Milstar secure military communications satellite.
  PLAY (314k, 36sec QuickTime file)

As the twin engines of the Titan 4B rocket's first stage are ignited, the two solid rocket boosters burn out and separate.
  PLAY (297k, 43sec QuickTime file)

The Lockheed Martin Titan 4/Centaur rocket delivers the Milstar satellite into Earth orbit as shown in launch animation.
  PLAY (256k, 42sec QuickTime file)

Animation shows the Milstar spacecraft at work in orbit relaying secure military communications 22,300 miles above the planet.
  PLAY (255k, 29sec QuickTime file)

Pre-launch briefing
Launch timeline - Chart with the key events to occur during the launch.

Titan 4B - Description of America's most powerful unmanned rocket.

Milstar satellite - A look at the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay satellite program.

Communications - Overview of Boeing's Medium Data Rate and crosslink payloads on Milstar.

Antennas - Technical description of Milstar's medium data rate nulling antennas made by TRW.

DPS - TRW's digital processing subsystem on Milstar is key to payload.

Restricted zone - Map outlining the Launch Hazard Area where mariners should remain clear for the liftoff.