Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wing Commander Predicts Pick-Up In Commercial Launches

The nation's primary gateway to space faces difficult times as NASA's shuttle program winds down, but the commercial space sector is expected to pick up over the next several years, the commander of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing said today.

"We've got a tremendous amount of launch business coming our way next year and the year after that and on into the future," Air Force Brig. Gen. Burke "Ed" Wilson told about 300 people at a National Space Club Florida Committee luncheon in Cape Canaveral. "We only see it growing in the future."

Wilson, who also serves as the director of the Eastern Range, acknowledged that the drawdown of the shuttle work force will have a significant impact on the area. A total of 9,000 contractor jobs at Kennedy Space Center are expected to be lost by the time the last shuttle flies later this year.

"Clearly it's going to be a rough transition," he said.

However, the number of commercial launches from Cape Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is expected to start climbing as early as next year, offsetting to some degree the losses sustained as a result of shuttle fleet retirement.

SpaceX, for one, aims to begin launching a series of 12 resupply runs to the International Space Station, and the company also hopes to start taxiing astronaut crews to and from the outpost within three years of a NASA contract award to do so.

Masten Space Systems also intends to start launching demonstration missions from Launch Complex 36 before the end of the year. The company is developing reusable vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicles to fly small payloads on suborbital flights.

"We only see more business on the launch front," Wilson said.

The Air Force Eastern Range comprises a network of ground stations that provide rocket tracking, range safety and weather forecasting services for all launches from Cape Canaveral and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

In the past the range has been viewed as a difficult place to carry out commercial launch operations, but Wilson said the 45th Space Wing is intent on turning that perception around and clearing the way for new commercial users to establish operations at Florida's coastal spaceports.

"We understand from a range perspective that we need to be responsive. We got that," Wilson said.

Wilson said he challenged wing officials to make the range available to a broad array of users and that plans are in place to modernize range instrumentation and other assets over the next eight years.

IMAGE NOTE: Click to enlarge the SpaceX image of a Falcon 9 rocket being hauled out of an integration building at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40, a former Air Force Titan IV launch facility that has been converted for commercial use. Photo Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX.

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