It's shaping up to be a banner year for launches on the Space Coast.
Cape Canaveral could see as many as 35 launches in 2018, a significant jump from 19 last year. The number includes several submarine-launched Trident missiles. However, as past years would indicate that number could drop a bit due to weather and hardware issues.
"I can't imagine, short of the time back in the 60s and 70s, when there was a better time to be in this business," Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith said during a packed National Space Club Florida Committee luncheon at the Radisson Resort at the Port on January 9 as reported by Florida Today.
"One quarter of all the launches in the world come from the Eastern Range that's pretty darn remarkable considering we are in the lightning capital of America."
Monteith is also director of the Eastern Range which comprises both Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
"Landing rockets is getting to be commonplace for us," Monteith said, alluding to SpaceX's Falcon 9, which vertically lands at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Landing Zone 1.
The site also saw a first-ever horizontal landing of the Air Force's secretive X-37B mini-shuttle at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility last May. It broadens the picture of the entire space flight program-- from processing to launch to landing, is based at the Eastern Range.
Cape Canaveral's Eastern Range has embarked on the "Drive to 48," or a target of supporting up to 48 launches a year, which translates to one a week on average. That could unfold between 2020 and 2023 as Blue Origin starts flying alongside SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, NASA and possibly others.
In many ways, the launch cadence increase plans are owed to SpaceX’s introduction of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS). The AFTS debuted this year from launch pad 39A with the Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-10 mission to the ISS for NASA. Under a traditional FTS, there is a person “in the loop”.
“We have now gone completely autonomous with that system," explained Monteith. "With the AFTS, we’re able to reduce our operational footprint by 60% on day of launch.“So we came down 96 people that don’t have to be sitting on console. And the cost to the customer is cut in half."
The AFTS combined with now two operational SpaceX pads at Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will allow Elon Musk's company to launch two Falcon 9 rockets – one from 39A and one from SLC-40 – within 16 to 18 hours of each other.
Space Notes -- In a news release on January 11 NASA outlined some of the milestones ahead for SpaceX in 2018. They include “continued, rigorous qualification testing” of both the Merlin engines used on the Falcon 9 as well as the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters, tests of the Dragon’s parachutes, post-splashdown recovery tests, and testing of the pressure suits that will be worn by astronauts flying on the Dragon.
SpaceX plans to send astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of the year. An uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is slated for in August 2018, followed by a crewed test flight in December.
“In 2017, significant progress was made towards the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon — one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built — and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year," said SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend.