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Vandenberg Air Force Base Facing Busy Launch Year In 2016

Schedule calls for as many as 11 launches on a compressed timetable

Col. J. Christopher Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, addresses a joint luncheon of the Santa Maria Valley and Lompoc Valley Chambers of Commerce on Wednesday at the Pacific Coast Club at Vandenberg AFB.
Col. J. Christopher Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, addresses a joint luncheon of the Santa Maria Valley and Lompoc Valley Chambers of Commerce on Wednesday at the Pacific Coast Club at Vandenberg AFB.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Vandenberg Air Force Base is gearing up for a busy — and compressed—year of launches, a top officer said Wednesday afternoon, outlining upcoming history-making moments for the installation.

Col. J. Christopher Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, spoke during an annual joint luncheon of the Santa Maria and Lompoc Chambers of Commerce at the Pacific Coast Club on base. 

“2016 is really shaping up be another exciting year,” he said. 

So far, the base has conducted two launches, with a third, a Delta 4 with top-secret payload, just a week away.

The base expects to have as many as 11 blastoffs in 2016, compared to seven last year.

“This is an aggressive launch schedule,” he said. “Team Vandenberg is going to be busy.”

The manifest includes four tests of unarmed Minuteman III missiles, plus a trio of Space Exploration Technologies Falcon rockets with commercial satellites.

The schedule also calls for a United Launch Alliance commercial Atlas 5 mission and an Orbital ATK Minotaur rocket mission to lift spacecraft for Skybox Imaging. The Google subsidiary’s intends to launch high-resolution imaging and video-capable spacecraft 

SpaceX also plans to conduct it’s first “flyback” mission during which the rocket’s first stage will return and attempt to land at the base. 

“We are planning for that now and expect in 2016 to do our very first flyback mission here at Vandenberg,” Moss said. “Fascinating technology. This has the potential to change the way we really think about space launch.”

SpaceX attempted to land a rocket on a barge last month following a launch from the base, but a leg collapsed and the first stage toppled over. 

Despite a busy manifest, Moss also said the base is preparing for a several-month span without blastoffs. 

That’s because the Joint Space Operations Center, which provides command and control for U.S. space units across the globe, is gearing up to move into a facility used by the Western Range.

A video presentation shows how the sprawling Vandenberg Air Force Base is compared to other smaller Air Force installations. Click to view larger
A video presentation shows how the sprawling Vandenberg Air Force Base is compared to other smaller Air Force installations. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“They operate out of a building on base that frankly is a little bit old. They’ve outgrown that building so they’re going to move,” Moss said. 

To accommodate the Joint Space Operations Center, Air Force officials plan to relocate Western Range equipment used to monitor just-launched rockets and missiles

“And that’s going to go off without a hitch,” Moss said, before repeating with emphasis. “That is going to go off without a hitch." 

Moss added, “It’s not just that we’re launching nine or ten rockets, it’s that we’re launching them together when the range is up and running.

This year also will bring a significant milestone for the Western Range, a network of radars, and personnel who monitor just-launched rockets and missiles to ensure they remain on their proper flight path.

The first automated flight-safety system launch will occur this year, according to Moss.

“Today, we have teams of very highly trained individuals who watch our satellite boosters and missiles fly. We have software that allows us to know where that booster is supposed to be versus where it actually is. 

“If it looks like it’s going off course, this team of highly trained people will blow that rocket up. They will not hesitate. It doesn’t matter was it costs. That’s what we do for public safety,” he added.

But technological advancements will let software, not humans, determine whether the rocket is off course and needs to be destroyed.

This is significant because the system will remove the requirement for aging sensors and other equipment to monitor launches, Moss said.

In some instances, glitches involving Western Range equipment have led to launch delays. 

“That means our launches are less expensive. That is good for our nation to have cheaper launches,” Moss said. 

The colonel also noted that 30th Space Wing personnel have received a significant number of awards, both as individuals and units.

And in 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service named the 30th Space Wing as the Military Conservation Partner Award for its environmental stewardship of the nearly 100,000-acre installation.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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