The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Trident launch failure
The Space Force offers an opportunity to stop repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to operating launch sites. (credit: US Navy)

National spaceports: the future

Bookmark and Share

“National spaceports: the past” explained how different organizational inclinations, as well as both Command and Air Force priorities and specific experiences, impacted the way different Air Force commands regarded and managed the Air Force test ranges that have become national spaceports. These attitudes and priorities had significant impacts on the way the spaceports were operated and planned.

Systems Command’s embedded priorities

Air Force Systems Command viewed the Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg spaceports primarily in the context of its acquisition function. The spaceports were Test and Evaluation (T&E) assets, and their needs were seen only in terms of specific programs. The manpower was seen only in the context of the command’s overall needs, driven by System Program Office (SPO) requirements, and could be shuffled about as needed. Ensuring adequate training of personnel and preserving the experience base was left up to the field organizations, to the extent that Systems Command and overall Air Force needs would allow it. Individuals that rotated between space acquisition program offices, the spaceports, and related organizations, such as the satellite control network, generally were viewed as having too narrow an experience base to be very competitive for promotions. And while Air Force Systems Command ran an expensive and thorough training program for flight test personnel, it never gave a thought to a similar school for the equally demanding jobs related to spaceport operations. Flight test expertise obviously related directly to overall US Air Force acquisition needs; space launch and spaceport expertise apparently did not, at least in the minds of the leadership.

It was psychologically impossible for the pilot-run Air Force to cut funding for pilot survival radios in favor of launch range equipment, so instead the range funding got cut every year due to something for which they had no responsibility nor possessed any control.

As a result, there was never any larger effort on the part of Systems Command to preserve expertise or define training requirements for space-related assignments. The individual space program SPOs and launch organizations at the spaceports attempted to manage their manpower as best they could, but were pretty much unable to even prevent experienced personnel from being assigned to other areas, both within Systems Command and elsewhere in the Air Force. In the face of that fact, designation of suitable career paths and development of a cadre of experienced personnel was all but impossible, and never a priority.

And, of course, since Systems Command was heavily focused on acquisition, they relied heavily on contractors. Aside from the actual companies building the flight hardware, Systems Command had the Aerospace Corporation to serve as “corporate memory” and used contractors to operate and maintain the launch ranges. While this approach probably was a necessity, given the nature of the tasks, there were little or no efforts to educate Air Force personnel on how and why things worked. Training was almost entirely of the on-the-job variety. Restrictive Air Force regulations copied from the aircraft side of the house prevented knowledge of the causes of space launch failures from being formally disseminated. The aircraft regulations required mishap investigation information to be kept closely held, because aircraft mishaps often involved loss of life and damage to civilian property; this was not the case for missile and space launch mishaps but the same regulations applied.

An additional factor was that no R&D intended to improve range and spaceport operations could be conducted. The space launch ranges were funded under Major Force Program 7, which meant that no RDT&E funds could be budgeted, due to the MFP 7 designation. But keeping the spaceports in the MFP 7 funding category gave Systems Command added flexibility in the civilian manpower needed for its SPOs and Air Force Program Offices located at contractors; both required Operations and Maintenance funds and the launch ranges were a large reservoir of that kind of money as well as civilian manpower slots.

The limitation of having no development of launch range capabilities in order to take advantage of new technologies meant that all range equipment procurement had to be based on pieces of already developed hardware. A related problem was that the range equipment funding was lumped in with the Air Force survival radio budget for management purposes. The ranges generally did a fine job of getting their funding allocated and on contract. But the survival radio procurements lagged badly, making the overall budget appear that the money was not needed in the years when it was funded. The normal practice employed by the DoD Comptroller was to reduce the following year’s funding when the current year funding was not being spent on what was considered to be a reasonable schedule. However, it was psychologically impossible for the pilot-run Air Force to cut funding for pilot survival radios in favor of launch range equipment, so instead the range funding got cut every year due to something for which they had no responsibility nor possessed any control.

Space Command’s operational imperatives

In contrast to Air Force Systems Command, Air Force Space Command viewed the space mission relative to the way the rest of the Air Force did business rather than the specific demands of the mission itself. Instead of focusing on defining the proper tasks required to support space activities, Space Command tended to say, “We are an operational command and things have to be done the same way as the rest of the operational Air Force does them. Anything else is wrong.” Of course this approach was colored heavily by the top level Air Force position that “operators” had to be favored over less traditional specialties, as well as the practical aspects of creating positions for missile crewmen and pilots that no longer had jobs in a downsized Air Force. This resulted in an attitude of, “Everybody else does it this way, and if you don’t, you are doing it wrong.” It was terribly convenient for bureaucrats that did not wish to think very much about their jobs as well as for careerists trying to make their previous experience more valuable.

So, the way the space launch and spaceport mission was conducted had to be changed to match the “correct” way, the way the “Operational” Air Force did things.

And, when told that we could not modify boosters and spacecraft after we launched them, the people writing the regulation were horrified.

Space Command’s first approach was to insist that the Systems Command contractors be replaced by Air Force personnel and that the standard Air Force logistics system be used to support the space launch and spaceport operations. This approach never got very far because they were utterly unable to explain why it should be done. The commander of Space Command, Gen. Horner, was asked by Pete Aldridge, former secretary of the Air Force, why he wanted to use that approach. Gen Horner replied it was just a ploy to try to get the contactors to lower their costs for launches. Unfortunately, the general apparently did not tell anyone else about that scheme. Gradually the command realized that the “operational” approach was not going to work, but instead one of “make it so a history major can do a launch” did prevail, at least in philosophical approach.

The operational designation also brought some significant baggage with it. An example of just how bad it could get came at the Pentagon in the early 1990s when the directive was issued to “normalize” the way space assets were managed.

The regulation that covered modifications to operational systems was revised to include space systems. This required modifications to be either “Temporary” mods that applied only to certain serial numbers or “Permanent” mods that applied to the entire fleet of such systems. The regulation said that Temporary mods had to be designed so that they could be removed within 24 hours. Now, that made a lot of sense for, say, an operational F-16 that might have to be deployed to Kuwait or Okinawa, but it made no sense at all for space boosters and spacecraft and was simply absurd in the case of the launch ranges.

And, when told that we could not modify boosters and spacecraft after we launched them, the people writing the regulation were horrified. “Then you can’t have temporary modifications!” was their response. And that meant that every modification we had to make to a vehicle to address a problem or to add instrumentation to investigate an anomaly then had to be made to the entire fleet of vehicles, even if there was no need.

Expertise counts, and the fact is that the required expertise to operate a spaceport often is different from what the rest of the military uses. Air Force Systems Command did not truly accept the responsibility to operate national spaceports, but rather focused on what its acquisition programs needed. But Systems Command did recognize that it had the responsibility to make everything fit together, “Systems Engineering,” which was its forte. Multiple different contractors had to interface with each other and also with Air Force organizations. This led to a heavy emphasis on engineers in key officer positions. For the enlisted workforce, the Instrumentation Technician specialty was one of the most useful. Air Force Instrumentation Technicians understood better than anyone else how the various elements fit together and who they had to communicate with to resolve problems; these were responsibilities the Air Force could not delegate.

When Space Command took over, many of positions were changed to non-engineering slots and many Instrumentation Technician slots were changed to the Missile Maintenance specialty. Now, in reality, very little “Missile Maintenance” was required; working on the space boosters and spacecraft was a contractor responsibility; and in any case and did not resemble ICBMs very much either technically or philosophically. But Air Force Space Command was trying to imitate other “operational” activities and do things the “normal” way.

The first step in doing smart things is to recognize the stupid things and quit doing them.

Then there were the procurement aspects. Operational assets had their modification plans revisited for re-prioritization every year. For example, if a problem developed with cracks in F-15 aircraft structures that needed to be addressed, other less high-priority upgrades on all other operational systems would be rescheduled to later years and the funding transferred to fix the F-15 problem. Space Command addressed this problem by combining more and more individual upgrade projects into the large Range Standardization and Automation program, which had as an objective of “making it possible for a history major to launch a rocket,” among other things. Smaller projects that could have been subject to such annual reprioritizations were rolled into RSA to make them harder to target. And the “Standardization” aspect, in turn, meant that if a replacement system was needed at one launch range, both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg got it also, whether previously identified as needed or not. When the new telemetry system needed at Vandenberg could not be provided because the increased costs meant only a much-reduced system could be provided at both coasts, the Vandenberg people were told to go use NASA’s capabilities, which were far more limited and even older and more outdated.

The Space Force opportunity

The first step in doing smart things is to recognize the stupid things and quit doing them. The unnecessary, nonproductive, and often downright absurd actions and limitations that both Systems Command and Space Command brought to the space launch business were a result of the inherent focus of both organizations, focus that was not really on operating national spaceports or developing the required expertise to do so.

If there is a real utility in having a “Space Force,” it is that it offers the ability to jettison the mandatory baggage that came with the previous Air Force commands. “This is the way the Air Force does things and if you are not doing it that way you are doing it wrong” is an argument that does not apply if it is no longer the Air Force.

Unlike F-16s and M-16s, there are not going to be thousands of spaceports, launch ranges, and space boosters deployed all over the world and therefore necessarily operated by blue suit personnel with standardized training. At least initially, Space Command could not bring itself to realize that fact. There is no reason to copy the logistics and operations concepts used by airplanes and ballistic missiles just so you can use “operators and maintainers” that you have an excess of.

Trying to define space launch systems and spaceports as “weapons systems” and then slavishly following the associated traditional concepts and accompanying Byzantine web of regulations is unworkable at best and disastrous at worst.

Systems Command tried to apply the acquisition approach to everything. Space Command kept seeking analogies as a basis for planning guidance: “If this were an aircraft wing what would we do? If this were a missile wing what would we do? If this were a major international airport what would we do?”

The upshot of it was that neither Air Force Systems Command nor Air Force Space Command really was interested in operating national spaceports. By either necessity or preference, laser focus or rank ignorance, both organizations had their heads elsewhere. And trapped within their established frameworks, neither command could think clearly about what really needed to be done.

The Space Force has to be the United States’ main source of expertise on space launch and spaceports. There literally is no one else to do the job.

And if you are wondering about NASA’s role in the spaceports, there is really not much to wonder about. NASA did not even have to think very much about operating a spaceport until the Antares vehicle began launching from Wallops Flight Facility, and then it relied primarily on the approaches and techniques that had been developed by the Air Force. It is true that the Kennedy Space Center attempted to address the larger question of future national spaceports by becoming NASA’s center of excellence for the subject, but the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 forced them to focus on more urgent immediate needs, followed by the challenge of radically new approaches to human space activities.

The Space Force should be able to escape that kind of a mindset lockbox. In direct contrast to earlier efforts, the US Space Force can assert its own priorities and approaches based on its actual mission rather that mimicking other organizations’ practices. The realities of the inherent difficulties of the space launch mission should be a major element of the Space Force’s basis for thought. But so should the fact that the nation is dependent on the capabilities of its spaceports for the foreseeable future—and there is no other organization to take on that job.

The Space Force has to be the United States’ main source of expertise on space launch and spaceports. There literally is no one else to do the job. For example, if you want to do analyses on aircraft accidents, the FAA and NTSB have extensive databases that are freely available to anyone. But when Elon Musk of SpaceX went looking for similar information on space launch mishaps early in his company’s development efforts, he found that not only was data not available, but no one actually was compiling it. The Air Force traditionally has kept such information restricted, and even simply has thrown a lot of it away. NASA has not tried to compile it. And launch companies typically keep “two sets of books” on what they will admit to versus what really occurred.

Thoughts for the future

National Spaceport Planning has been very difficult and mostly unsuccessful over the last 50 years, largely because the national-level space plans formulated in Washington DC invariably have ranged from grossly inadequate to simply horrible. The Moon Race was a triumph, but the planning failed to look behind JFK’s simple stated goal. The Space Shuttle and the associated abandonment of other launch capabilities was an unmitigated disaster. Even after the loss of the Challenger, the Air Force cancelled advanced space booster development twice in order to save the too-costly F-22. NASA’s follow-on program to the shuttle, the X-33, was a complete failure.

The Air Force’s initial EELV approach, which called for the use of only one new expendable booster, had to be completely revised multiple times, and each change had major impacts on the spaceports. The operational approach formulated by Air Force Space Command literally blew up in our face. The commercial approach still continues, after a fashion, but has also proved that private firms cannot be trusted implicitly. Today, a “National Plan for National Spaceports” has yet to be defined, but we can look at the past and state some basic principles that need to be considered.

Building spaceports around the specific needs of programs using them may not have been the most efficient approach, but it worked. Getting even government programs to work together in the name of better efficiency is very challenging, and making private firms fit a mold they do not accept is all but impossible. Government and commercial programs using the spaceports have to be able to focus on their individual needs but someone, somewhere, should be looking at the big picture. That has to be the organization running the spaceports, the US Space Force.

The Space Force has to accept the highly challenging responsibility of “Making Everything Fit Together.” Even in the cases where spaceport users are assigned maintenance responsibility for their specific dedicated facilities, those installations have to mesh with the rest of the spaceport

As NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said a number of years ago, “A spaceport has to be a place that is “all of the above.’” Spaceports that only do military, or only commercial, or just small companies, or only large companies, or only orbital, or just suborbital, missions are not going to be viable. And that means that operating a spaceport requires a wide range of expertise and associated resources.

It seems that the Air Force was easily large enough to operate spaceports but was too large to think about it properly; too many other mandatory thoughts intruded. The Space Force is going to have to actually think.

Brick and mortar counts. Something beats nothing. Presenting a beautiful park that can be used to launch rockets is not going to be effective. Given this fact, the current “build down” approach long used by Air Force Space Command is not favorable to the future of the spaceports. A related factor is the extremely restrictive interpretation of the Commercial Space Launch Act adopted by the command (see “An embarrassment of riches”, The Space Review, June 28, 2010) prevented some legitimate private company use of excess facilities.

It is a remarkably difficult challenge to allow spaceports users the choice of purchasing some services from the spaceport, providing them using their own organic resources, or, alternatively, hiring an outside firm. The spaceport needs a defined workload in order to contract for services and, in some cases, such as security forces or safety services, it may not be possible to have multiple suppliers. Nonetheless, flexibility needs to be maximized in this area.

The obvious question is: what replaces the unsuitable attitudes that drove previous operators of the national spaceports? The approaches used by Air Force Systems Command space launch organizations were based not only on the way the command did things in general but on prudence that came from years of many heartbreaking failures as well as the successes. This may have not looked very “military” to some outside observers, but it worked. And while stuffing space activities into a traditional military format such as Space Command tried to do will not work, there are no doubt some basic military principles that still apply to space activities. What do “surprise, shock, concentration of forces, security, morale, logistics” and other basic military principles mean as applied to space activities? Well, we have been so busy using analogies to missiles and aircraft that we have actually not given that much real thought to those aspects. It seems that the Air Force was easily large enough to operate spaceports but was too large to think about it properly; too many other mandatory thoughts intruded. The Space Force is going to have to actually think.

Air Force Systems Command expended a great deal of effort retaining what it called “corporate memory.” The Aerospace Corporation was created for that very purpose. But the Air Force in general and Systems Command in particular never really recognized the importance of retaining its “blue suit” corporate memory. Air Force organizations used specific individual name requests to try to retain and focus expertise within space activities, but the Manpower Personnel Center at Randolph AFB still had the ultimate say in who went where. Air Force Space Command proceeded to implement the destruction of Air Force corporate knowledge, with disastrous results (see “Launch failures: management”, The Space Review, December 16, 2019). The Air Force literally wrote the book on space launch range safety procedures and standards but Air Force Space Command’s attitude was that “operational” commands had no business doing that sort of thing.

Operating the National Spaceports will require an organization capable of rejecting outdated and inappropriate concepts while working with private industry, other military services, various Department of Defense organizations, NASA, and the FAA. It will require an organization willing to embrace the skills and knowledge required, and both meet the needs of spaceport users as well as guide and assist them toward approaches that will be successful. Such an organization does not currently exist; the US Space Force can only meet the challenge by becoming it.

And expertise and lessons learned need to be preserved and taught. There is no reason to duplicate the Air Force Academy but we do need a “Space Force Academy” to develop and retain vital corporate knowledge.

Or we could just keep making pinwheels in the sky that don’t go anywhere.

Note: we are temporarily moderating all comments submitted to deal with a surge in spam.