CAPE CANAVERAL SPACE FORCE STATION, Fla.
The mission control room at Space Launch Delta 45 looks much like what you’ve seen in old TV footage and space movies from the 1960s. The technology and clothes have changed, but the vibe is the same: Launch data is projected on large screens for all to see. Desks rise up from the front in semicircles, each presenting its operator with uniform modular control consoles featuring big, square keys fixed on a sloped panel.
The U.S. Space Force is responsible for launch and space assets at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which is set to break the record for launches this year with 67. For the first time, polar launches can now lift off from Florida’s Space Coast; in the past those were exclusively the province of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif.
I started to sense there was a real culture change when I started seeing the speed of adaptation of new things.Capt. Oliver Chang, an operations support flight commander
To pick up the pace, SLD 45 leaders say they must offer a faster turnaround than was ever demanded in the past. New weather tracking programs and more sophisticated risk assessment technology make this possible. The 2-year-old Space Force is inculcating a culture of innovation and responsible risk-taking, an approach Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond likens to the Silicon Valley mindset, where even the lowest-ranking individuals can speak truth to power and offer ideas for better ways to accomplish the mission.
Raymond is responding to pressure. China’s heavy investment in space capabilities—and Russia’s demonstration of counter-space weapons—raise the stakes for future operations dependent on space. Increasing the launch pace is about lowering launch costs and realizing national security imperatives, while at the same time enabling a growing and vibrant commercial space business that will help enable the Space Force to achieve its mission objectives, including establishing a more resilient space architecture.
SLD 45 is at the forefront of the policy adjustments, digital transformation, and innovative new ways of thinking that will help realize Raymond’s vision of a space—“Range of the Future”—an urgent national security challenge.
Sometimes, the control room launch keys stick.
Space Force Range Operation Commander Instructor 1st Lt. Ascheleigh Downum oversees Mission Control Room One at SLD 45, and she is committed to advancing digital transformation for launch. The 26-year-old millennial grew up with more advanced technology than what she’s using today.
“As you can see a lot of our technology here is kind of outdated,” Downum said, pointing to the built-in communications panels with push buttons. “It can get confusing. There are a lot of buttons that do a lot of different things that are also similar, but they don’t do the thing you want it to do.”
When buttons stick, they can trigger unintended consequences. “We have issues with buttons getting stuck and it sends the panel into a test mode, which renders our console unusable,” said Downum.
“We’ve had nets just go down completely, lost talk monitor capability—just randomly end count for a launch—and that, sometimes, can have a mission impact.”
If a mandatory item goes down, launch sequences must be suspended.
“We’ve lost those channels directly to the user, and we’ve had to find some workarounds … on launch day.”
Now, at last, a digital update is in the works.
“Basically, what we’ve been trying to do is bring all of that technology into the 21st century,” she said. Compunetix, a software program hosted on the Range Application Deployment (RAD) system, is now in the operational test phase. Every console has a large curved monitor set on the top of the communications panel.
The RAD system’s on-screen buttons resemble the old-fashioned control panel, but can be customized to the operators’ needs, depending on their role: range operations commander, safety officer, or surveillance control officer.
The visual display reproduces the live range count and live video on every operator’s screen and allows each operator to communicate in real time over chat and “significantly more” communications channels. The RAD system can support pages for communications networks customized to both SpaceX and ULA Atlas rockets simultaneously, and if a console goes down, the operator can just move to another workstation in mission control and log in there.
RAD even has a remote capability. A mission dress rehearsal recently tested the remote system by communicating with a launch commander at Patrick Space Force Base—20 miles south of Cape Canaveral.
“Our launch decision authority was sitting down in his office at Patrick and he was able to do full communication with the crew [and] give his clear to launch over these digital networks,” Downum said.
As launch tempo increases, leadership will require the remote capacity to approve launches.
RAD was used in shadow mode March 1 for a ULA Atlas V launch of NASA’s GOES-T weather satellite. It will remain in that role until RAD is fully tested and approved.
Down the hall from the control room, the 45th Weather Squadron Multi-Domain Operations Center, a circular enclave of desks with six or more monitors each face a giant video display of weather data. The center processes feeds from $80 million worth of weather sensors, winds, temperature and surface electric fields, clouds, lightning strikes, and more; digital models display insights intelligible only to meteorologists.
“All these different monitors, they’re all feeding from different sources of information, and we use all of these separately to interrogate what’s going on in the atmosphere,” said Air Force Lt. Adam Thaler.
Weather in different parts of the atmosphere affect rockets at different stages of launch and recovery. Increased precision and faster updates can mitigate against unnecessary weather holds, reducing the chance of a badly timed launch.
“We’re using that information to make the go and no-go calls for the weather status,” Thaler said. Further integration is on the way, however.
Today, said Taylor, “If I want to look at lightning, then I have to go over here. If I want to look at radar, then I have to go over there. So, it’s not as efficient as it could be.”
A new tool called CLEER, for Cloud and Lightning Evaluation for the Eastern Range, brings all the data into a single 3D weather visualization. Developed in just nine months, this agile software development project delivered a prototype for shadow testing in October.
“It takes our radar data, it takes lightning data, it takes temperature levels, and it puts them all into one 3D visualization,” according to Thaler.
Col. Jason King, commander of the 45th Weather Squadron, broke down the simplicity of the new digital system, which could be fully implemented as soon as early 2023.
“If you could imagine sitting in this chair here, looking at the weather radar, and then looking at lightning and looking at satellite, and trying to put all that together in your head, it’s hard,” he said. “What’s the distance between that cloud and where the rocket is going to be at 30,000 feet? You’re kind of guessing,” he continued. But with the new technology, “you click on a cloud, it tells you exactly, it’s going to be 4.3 miles away from the launch trajectory. And there’s no human error there—it’s just automatic.”
The precise computerized calculations factoring in all the atmospheric data gathered by the weather squadron will mean more launches.
“We’re able to evaluate faster, quicker, more accurately, and we don’t have to be as conservative,” said King. That’s important because being too conservative means “you can scrub a mission, which may impact the one for the next day. It’s kind of a chain reaction.”
Nurturing a Guardian Culture of Risk-Taking
Squadron commanders and operators across SLD 45 mimic the same refrain spoken by Space Force leaders calling on them to take risks. Risks, of course, come with the possibility of failure. At SLD 45, young Guardians and Airmen say they are confident they can make a mistake and their leaders will have their backs.
Guardians and Airmen at all levels are encouraged to speak up, and they say they are comfortable doing so. Older leaders with decades of experience are buying into new ways of doing things.
“You can tell that the culture is changing,” said Space Force Capt. Oliver Chang, 34, an operations support flight commander who spent eight years in the Air Force before transitioning into the Space Force. “For me, every time I heard the word ‘innovation,’ at least in the previous decade of my career, I’d always listen to that word and have guarded ears. I’d be like, ‘Oh, here we go he said,’” recalled Chang. But at SLD 45 it’s been different.
“I started to sense there was a real culture change when I started seeing the speed of adaptation of new things,” Chang said. “There’s really a willingness to listen, and just an attitude of, ‘Show me. Don’t just tell me.’”
The mission assurance team he is part of got the green-light to use commercial Jira software to create a program for the Delta to help improve its processes. The program was developed on the Air Force’s cloud-based Platform One.
The resulting Falcon Issue Tracker helps download, study, generate feedback on SpaceX launch data to identify potential problems. The issue tracker looks at every step of the launch process from manufacturing to lift off and deploying the payload into orbit.
Similarly, a new Launch Verification Database (LVDB) captures a line-by-line record of everything the mission assurance team does to assess risk.
Chang and others visited the “Space Camp” software factory at Peterson Space Force Base, Colo., where they learned how they could leverage new software at SLD 45.
Using Platform One, these tools bypass aging IT infrastructure and overcome the network problems that used to grind progress to a halt here. “We used to have, literally, whole days where the whole tool would be down,” Chang said. Moving the LVDB to Platform One improved security and added speed and efficiency. Now, operators can use their secure cell phones and tablets to do mission tracking tasks.
The list of new software being adopted by SLD 45 goes on. “I’m seriously just hearing about new things dropped, like, almost weekly. And it’s, it’s awesome,” Chang said.
Down the road at Patrick Space Force Base there’s a room full of 3D printers and laptops called “the Forge.” It’s a place where Guardians and Airmen go on their own time to develop new solutions to “pain points” across the Delta. Many of those present attended a three-month coding workshop in Colorado to become “Supra Coders” capable of writing their own software solutions.
Getting to 100 Launches
In a space that houses Patrick’s bowling alley, the lanes are dark, but neon lights flicker where part of the empty space is being prepared to house $300,000 worth of PC consoles, Xboxes, PlayStations, a 75-inch TV screen, and more—a 24/7 gaming and entertainment mecca for Guardians and Airmen. On the far corner stool of a center bar sat a one-star acquisitions professional and engineer by trade, known to be a gamer and tech nerd himself, Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Purdy Jr.
Purdy has been driving the risk-taking at SLD 45 since taking command last August. The gaming lounge is his alternative to leaving young service members to hang out solo in their dorm rooms “with their Mountain Dew and their Twizzlers, playing games all night.”
Purdy touts characteristics he values in his people. “We like to play. We like to experiment, but it’s with a purpose in mind, and we have an overriding focus,” he said. “We’re really, really focused on implementation, getting that capability to the warfighter.”
Purdy’s apprach is to apply resources and empower leaders across the base to get the job done. He turned his acquisitions training on end; instead of contracting out, he helped service members to learn to help themselves.
He embraces both Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s “Accelerate Change, or Lose” and CSO Raymond’s call for the Space Force to become the nation’s first true digital service.
“Here, we’re more vertically integrated,” he said. “We kind of own our acquisition and our operations in many ways. And so, we can move on out.”
The shift in America’s approach to its rivals and emerging threats underscores a sense or urgency here.
“There’s a real threat,” Purdy said. “A China threat, a Russia threat. … But the threat base, it has definitely changed the nature of stuff, the rise of the Space Force.”
Launching more rockets faster means putting Raymond’s vision of a resilient space architecture in place more quickly.
A decade ago, Cape Canaveral was launching less than 10 rockets per year. It launched 37 rockets in 2021 and aims for 67 in 2022. “We tell ourselves, in a few years, you need to be ready to go launch 100 rockets a year,” Purdy said. “How do you get to that point? You have to change almost everything. You have to change your philosophy. You have to change your processes. You have to look at what you’re doing. You have to look at your technology.”
These are all happening now.
“And, so this gaming, and this innovation, and this whole attitude of innovation and change and whatnot, fits right into it,” Purdy admitted. Culture. Process. Technology. Each must advance more rapidly to meet the threat and the growing demand for launch. Each plays a role, Purdy said.
“All of those are how I get to increased launch.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 6:30 p.m. on May 2 to correct the spelling of Space Force Capt. Oliver Chang’s name.