Cape Canaveral has been the nation's premier spaceport since its first space launches in the late 1950s. The Air Force, along with NASA and spaceflight companies such as United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, depend on the airmen and civilians in the 45th Space Wing to get their equipment up to space. Most of the pressure is on the 26 airmen and 13 civilians of the 45th Weather Squadron to pass along their advice and readings on the weather of the country's "lightning capital."
"We are along the Eastern Range, and it's a great place to launch rockets because of the way it jets out from Florida. It allows for a safety aspect better than other areas," said Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Hunter, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the range weather operations element and of NASA operations for the squadron. "However, it is probably one of the worst places in the CONUS to launch rockets as well because we are the lightning capital of the United States."
On Feb. 10, SpaceX was set to try for the second time to launch a Falcon 9 rocket with the Deep Space Climate Observatory weather satellite for NASA, but the launch weather officer in charge of the operation spotted high-level winds that SpaceX determined to be unsafe for its rocket, and the launch was scrubbed until it could launch successfully the next day. At 6:03 p.m. on Feb. 11, on a clear but lightly windy Florida evening, the Falcon 9 launched from the SpaceX pad on Cape Canaveral on time and successfully entered orbit.
Most launches from the Air Force station do not include Air Force payloads, but every launch has an Air Force team behind it, ranging from officers involved in the original planning for the mission to those involved in keeping the mission safe and ready until the launch day. In 2014, the airmen worked on 18 launches, 10 of which were Defense Department missions. For this year, the numbers are growing to 25 total missions, eight of which are for DoD.
The 45th Weather Squadron is an Air Force weather flight on steroids. Most bases have smaller units, or flights, responsible for ensuring aircraft are taking off and flying safely in weather conditions. But the airmen on Cape Canaveral have more equipment and expertise than other units simply because of the importance and complexity of launching rockets from the base. All airmen who come to the base go through additional training to familiarize themselves with and prepare for the mission.
"We have one of the densest areas of weather equipment in all of the Air Force, potentially one of the densest in the world," Hunter said. "There's more weather equipment here than any other weather flight in the Air Force."
While most bases use one radar handled by the National Weather Service, the 45th has two — an NWS-operated one and one it handles on its own.
The Space Coast of Florida sees more lightning strikes than any part of the country, with as many as 50 strikes for each square mile per year, according to NASA. Cape Canaveral has advanced equipment to detect those dangers, including the only sensor in the Air Force that can detect lightning inside clouds, a dangerous potential threat to space flight as a rocket climbs through the atmosphere.
The Morrell Operations Center at Cape Canaveral operates 24 hours per day, every day, making sure preparations are safe for every launch from the base.
"We do all launches," Hunter said. "Anytime we have one on the Eastern range. SpaceX, Delta, Atlas, NASA. We support any type of operation that goes on."
Cape Canaveral is the launch point for the Eastern Range, which jets out thousands of miles into the Atlantic. The base's coastal position allows for a safe path over water for a rocket to make it into orbit.
While the weather squadron focuses on launch preparation and the launch itself, other airmen on the base begin their work on a mission months, or years, before the countdown.
The 5th Space Launch Squadron is a team of airmen and civilians who coordinate with the launch company, other organizations involved in the mission and Air Force leadership to ensure each mission progresses smoothly.
"We establish relationships needed to keep extremely complex parts moving in the same direction," said Capt. Kyle Clements, chief of launch operations and integration for the 5th Space Launch Squadron.
For example, the next mission scheduled for March 12 is a ULA Atlas V with NASA's Magnetic Multiscale project, which will study magnetic fields around the Earth. NASA support for the mission began almost 10 years ago, and Air Force officials have been involved in coordination and planning for months to make sure every piece is ready for launch.
The squadron has seen an increase in operations and work over the past few years, and expects more as SpaceX moves for certification for Air Force launches, Clements said. Currently, ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, is the only firm certified to carry military payloads. SpaceX is working to be certified for future Air Force launches.
"We have two rockets on the pad now preparing for a mission, but we are also working five to six other missions," Clements said. "There's excitement [for each launch], but with the knowledge that next week you'll be right back in the chair working the next mission. Gone are the days of launching and having a weeklong party. 'One mission at a time' is a popular saying around here."
Clearing the spectrum
Much as the weather squadron's mission is to make sure the skies are clear, another group on base works to make sure the launch vehicle and payload have a clear path, but this time in the electronic spectrum.
Members of the 1st Range Operations Squadron with the 45th Space Wing monitor the electronic spectrum in the area around the launch site, to make sure there's no radio interference that could block or distort communications between the vehicle and the control center.
"We can't lose track of the vehicles," said Scott Peterman, a senior electronics engineer with the 1st Range Operations Squadron.
Within the past year, the squadron identified and shut down 46 sources that used radio frequencies NASA, the launch companies and the Air Force rely on to maintain communication with the launch vehicles. The day of a launch, three specially equipped vans inspect the electronic spectrum around launches to make sure everything is clear. When a source of interference is identified, the squadron has engineered a way to locate its source and kindly ask that it be turned off.
Largely, it has been local Internet access companies using frequencies for wireless Internet. It is a "needle in a haystack problem," Peterman said.
"We want to have a clear electromagnetic spectrum to operate in, but we also have to live in a very densely populated area, and we don't want to bring the hammer down," he said.
Protecting the base
Cape Canaveral has the same day-to-day function of any Air Force operational base, but with the unique twist of regular space launches on post.
The 45th Explosive Ordnance Detachment on Cape Canaveral is an operational EOD unit that has deployed regularly. But at the home base, it also provides protection just in case something goes wrong with the massive, expensive rockets.
"We always have a team on standby," said Staff Sgt. Kyle Gneuchtel, the noncommissioned officer in charge of current operations for the detachment. "In the case of an accident, we're there to help clear paths to rescue personnel, or a critical asset threatened by fire or debris."
"Our job is to protect an Air Force base, while having a front row seat to a rocket launch," said Senior Airman Joshua Serrano of the 45th Security Forces Squadron. "It's a pretty cool experience,"
Photo Credit: Christopher Calkins/Air Force
Gneuchtel is a self-describted "space enthusiast" who picked the assignment to Cape Canaveral after being based at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. The work at the base is busier than previous assignments, because of the regular schedule of launches. The EOD team of 18 airmen regularly train for contingencies and alternate through assignments to be prepared in case the worst happens.
"We have to have a team out there at a set time ready to go in case something happens," he said. "Constantly, as new guys come in, we brief them on the new platforms, show the different ordnance on them. We plan out a month to two months in advance."
The 45th Security Forces Squadron is tasked with protecting the launch assets, as well as guarding the station. It's a "very intricate and huge base" to protect, said Senior Airman Joshua Serrano, an airman with the 45th SFS.
"Our job is to protect an Air Force base, while having a front row seat to a rocket launch," Serrano said. "It's a pretty cool experience, but you have to be on your toes."