The commercial space industry is poised to continue flourishing at Vandenberg Space Force Base

Vandenberg Space Force Base just outside Lompoc has been in the missile launching business for more than six decades. Initially there were scores of launch attempts before a successful mission was completed. Why? Because in the early days several test attempts were required to prove that the design would work. It’s no different with commercial launchers today.

Back in the day there were no computers and very little historical data to guide early engineers and project managers. The slide rule was the only “computer.” According to Wikipedia, it was a “pair of parallel rulers that can slide past each other. As the rulers each have a logarithmic scale, it is possible to align them to read the sum of the numbers’ logarithms and hence calculate the product of the two numbers.” The result was based on the user’s skill at aligning scales and the condition of the instrument.

This instrument along with paper engineering drawings—created by using pencils, straitedges, French curves, protractors, triangles, handheld compasses, and ink pens used by draftsmen that translated engineers’ ideas into useful instructions for highly skilled technicians—were used to construct the missiles. There were no computer-controlled milling machines or welders; it was skilled craftsmen and women who built the rockets by hand.

I was first introduced to the space industry in 1965 while assigned to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as a firefighter. I was frequently sent with my fire truck to Santa Rosa Island just southwest of Fort Walton Beach to “standby” as the military tested 2.75 rockets and launched two-stage missiles to measure the thickness of the ionosphere in support of NASA space missions at Cape Canaveral. 

Occasionally there were very dramatic failures.

As time went on, the early designs were improved; however, the government isn’t in business to make money. After 20 years in the Air Force, I worked as a contractor employee in the ground-support part of the space projects at Vandenberg Space Force Base for 30 years; my function was occupational safety and health compliance to try and keep the employees safe.

As such I was privileged to observe many tasks and attend planning meetings associated with the assembly of the launch vehicle, which involved crane operations, transportation of components, maintenance and movement of large support structures and multi-ton solid rocket motors, and storage and transfer of thousands of gallons of toxic and cryogenic liquids and large volumes of high-pressure gases.

My takeaway from all this was that many of the older systems evolved into very complex and complicated electrical/mechanical systems requiring hundreds of employees on-site as well as at factory locations. Each system had several contractor/government engineering “consultants” who could cause months of delays if they had concerns about any of the components that made up the launch vehicle or payload.

All the support structures and the missile systems required thousands of hours of costly maintenance performed by scores of technicians.

So, what’s different today? Why does SpaceX seem to successfully launch payloads into orbit every couple of weeks from Vandenberg and other launch sites?

First, the current crop of commercial flyers has the advantage of previous failures to look back at and avoid. In fact, many former military and government employee missileers have since retired from the Air Force and are employed in private launch firms’ engineering and operations functions.

Another reason is that their launch sites are not as complex when compared to earlier government facilities. Instead of using 25-story moveable buildings to erect their systems vertically they choose to assemble them horizontally and then use a strongback to raise the missile into launch position prior to loading fuel. This saved thousands of hours of maintenance and scores of ground support staff. Thus, their method is much less costly than the way the government did it.

Their systems are designed by engineers using sophisticated computers; they are assembled using computer-controlled three-dimensional milling and welding equipment with much tighter tolerances and welds that are perfect every time. Again, fewer employees, less assembly time, fewer errors, and less cost.

Next, they don’t rely on highly toxic and volatile fuel and oxidizer as propellant; instead, they use liquid oxygen and a nontoxic fuel. Far fewer people are needed to handle these propellants, and there is less likelihood of exposing the public or nearby facilities to a toxic vapor release.

Again, this saves time and money; they load it just prior to launch, and if there is an abort at the last minute, they simply download it through a closed piping system into storage tanks and are ready to reuse it the next day. This was nearly impossible to accomplish with earlier systems that required numerous staff and was time-consuming.

Another is that they reuse their core launch vehicles by landing them after flight and then refurbishing them. Some have flown several times without any hiccups. This saves not only manufacturing and processing time, but also is very cost-effective. In addition, by using clusters of engines they can exchange a defective engine quickly and then complete the mission.

If the government tried to land and reuse the fully assembled rocket motors and tanks, they would still be “discussing it” and consultants would be second-guessing engineers in endless meetings. Today private launch providers are willing to test their ideas by flying the hardware, landing it, and evaluating the refurbishment process. This cuts out all the second-guessing by acquiring actual flight data.

Over the years I’ve observed many launches of spacecraft, but when I saw the first SpaceX booster return to Vandenberg a few minutes following a launch and nail the landing, I was impressed. These folks seem to know how to get things done—faster, cheaper, and better than the government ever could have.

I foresee a multiyear string of launch successes and a growing presence of commercial space operations at Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].

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