- Press Release
- Mar 28, 2023
Streamlining Rocket Launch Procedures Would Not Compromise Safety
Contacts: Bob Ludwig, Media Relations Associate
Kathi McMullin, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail < [email protected]>
WASHINGTON — Safety procedures at two national space launch sites can be streamlined through new technology and better use of safety analysis techniques without endangering the public, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council. Current efforts to replace aging rocket launch support systems with modern technologies are compatible with making safety measures both more consistent and
The U.S. Air Force already plans to implement a new tracking system based on the Global Positioning System (GPS), which would be more efficient and cost-effective than traditional radar systems for tracking launch vehicles from takeoff to their entry into space. The transition to a GPS tracking system should be completed as rapidly as possible, urged the committee that wrote the report, because it will enable the Air Force to eliminate 11 of the 20 tracking radars that support launch operations. The new system includes a receiver on board the launch vehicle that calculates its position and velocity and sends the information to launch operators on the ground.
"The number of commercial launches and the inefficiency and high maintenance costs of the aging radar systems could jeopardize the competitiveness of the nation’s space launch capability by raising the cost of launches from the United States compared with sites in other countries," said committee chair Robert E. Whitehead, retired associate administrator for aeronautics and space transportation technology at NASA, who now resides in Henrico, N.C. "Launch-range operators can maintain today’s high level of safety while reducing costs by using satellite technology, for example, which is more efficient than a conventional radar system and can track rockets just as accurately."
The launch ranges, located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, are used to launch government and commercial payloads, such as weather and communication satellites, and have a notable safety record. In the almost 50-year history of the Space Age, and after more than 4,600 launches, no one has been killed or seriously injured. Given this track record, the report identifies several areas where range-safety procedures could be restructured to lower costs with no compromise in safety.
The range safety program approved by the Air Force Space Command — which manages the sites — has specified the use of risk standards since at least 1995. However, range managers continue to use overly cautious procedures and require some mechanisms that do not contribute to overall safety, the committee said. For example, the process for determining the location of destruct lines — which are used to determine whether a launch vehicle is off-target and its flight must be terminated — should be correlated to risk standards.
Further, range managers apply safety standards differently at each site, which can be costly for users who must reconfigure or retest launch vehicles to meet the requirements. To remain competitive in a global market for launch services, the Air Force should re-evaluate its risk-management process and enforce safety standards that are
consistent at both ranges, the report says.
The Africa ‘Gate’
Some rockets launched from Florida fly very briefly over Africa before they pass into space. These rockets must fly through a "gate," or a predefined area along the flight path, as an indication to the range managers that the mission’s progress is satisfactory. If the vehicle does not pass through a gate, the flight is terminated and the rocket is directed to self-destruct and land in the ocean. Because it’s highly unlikely that a rocket could go off course at this late stage, tracking should be shifted closer to the United States, the report says. Moving the gates also would reduce costs because radar tracking stations on the islands of Antigua and Ascension could be eliminated from the range safety support system.
Aircraft and Boat Traffic
Both launch sites encompass carefully defined, restricted areas to protect aircraft and boats from launch hazards. Since air and boat traffic are expected to increase, as is the frequency of launches, an improved communications and notification process is needed, especially at Cape Canaveral where air and boat traffic more often interfere with launches, the report says. The Air Force should make better use of the news media to alert the public. And current safety systems — such as signs, lights, and other warning devices at marinas and along the coast — also should be reviewed.
Surveillance and detection activities need to be improved as well, the committee said. The Air Force should use new, more efficient aircraft equipped with surveillance and imaging systems to quickly detect and clear surface and air traffic from restricted launch areas. And the Air Force should work with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Attorney’s office to strengthen prosecution of those who violate restricted areas and to provide an incentive for the boaters and pilots to comply with launch safety regulations.
Through an agreement signed in 1997, the Air Force Space Command transferred oversight for acquiring safety equipment to the Air Force Materiel Command. Once these systems are delivered, the Space Command is responsible for their implementation and operation. However, overlap of responsibility for acquisition of flight safety systems still exists between these two organizations and should be eliminated, the report says. The Air Force Materiel Command also should consolidate its two independent safety offices for reviewing new safety systems, now located at each range. These moves would allow users to work with a single office when planning to build launch vehicles that must be compatible with current safety standards.
The report was funded by the Air Force Space Command. A committee roster follows. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit organization that provides advice on science and technology under a congressional charter.
Copies of Streamlining Space Launch Range Safety are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $18.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems
Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board
Committee on Space Launch Range Safety
Robert E. Whitehead (chair)
Office of Aeronautics and Space Transportation Technology
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (retired)
W. Gainey Best II
Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle System
Lockheed Martin Astronautics
John L. Byron
Strategic Planning and Value Assurance Process Development
Johnson Controls Inc.
Cocoa Beach, Fla.
Benjamin A. Cosgrove*
Senior Vice President
Boeing Commercial Airplane Group (retired.)
James W. Danaher
Operational Factors and Human Performance Division
National Transportation Safety Board (retired.)
Kingston A. George
Santa Maria, Calif.
Launch Systems Engineering and Operations
Hughes Space and Communications
Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Joyce A. McDevitt
Contract Program Manager
Corporate Chief Engineer
Aerospace Corp. (retired)
Redondo Beach, Calif.
Jimmey R. Morrell
U.S. Air Force (retired)
Norman H. Schutzberger
Fluid Mechanical & Propulsion Systems Group
TRW Components International
ASEB Liaison to the Committee
Frederick H. Hauck
President and CEO
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
Alan C. Angleman
Senior Program Officer
George M. Levin
Director, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board
* Member, National Academy of Engineering
[NOTE: Full report is available for online viewing at