There was a time when voice communications was the only way that controllers on one launch range in the United States could convey status information on missions. They found this was difficult to do during the more hectic parts of the launch, because they would need to memorize a lot of information quickly.
Enter InSpace 21 on the stage some 12 years ago. It began evaluating how to streamline these launch operations at the Eastern Range, which encompasses Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station near Orlando. In 2005, it implemented a system to display launch update information visually.
Now, critical alerts and status reports are displayed on computer screens at controller workstations, allowing them to view information even before voice status reports come through. Although the computers do not replace the voice systems - voice is still how decisions are made - it provides more information to improve the quality of the conversations.
Today, executives estimate that they have saved some $6 million in launch costs - all for the price of a couple of hundred thousand dollars total, which includes development and ongoing upgrades.
"We want to improve launch availability and reduce costs to launch customers," said Michael Maier, president of InSpace 21, in a media briefing Wednesday at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
InSpace 21 is overseeing the system, called VISION. The company, a joint venture of CSC and Honeywell, is intended to provide "safe, ready, reliable and rapidly adaptable launch and test range services to the Air Force and its space partners," the company stated in a release.
The company demonstrated the tool, using historical STS-134 launch data from 2011, to media representatives in Colorado Springs.
The company's four major requirements are to maintain public safety, provide adequate capacity for launch teams, be reliable and be cost-effective. Its business purely comes from implementing logistics and solutions at ranges such as Cape Canaveral, Nellis and White Sands, although the VISION tool is used solely on the Eastern Range.
Launch scrubs can run to $100 million to $200 million a day as personnel work to recalibrate the rocket, reload the fuel, reset the network and other items, InSpace 21 said.
The firm's overall goal is to reduce the number of times launch operations cause the scrub of a launch. Although it's a small portion of overall scrubs - just three per cent - officials believe they can reduce this even further through use of the tool.
Cost of development was low because they already use a framework from Microsoft SharePoint. Although there are no moves to sign on further customers at this time, there is preliminary interest from NASA Wallops given the track record of success at Cape Canaveral, officials said.
InSpace 21's tool looks like a useful way of helping controllers stay on top of the information that they need. How much they can further improve launch reliability, now that they have this system in place, is the next hurdle they will need to face.