SpaceX to shift Falcon 9’s next West Coast launch to Florida, the first of its kind in decades

Falcon 9 B1048.2 successfully launched SAOCOM 1A in October 2018. SAOCOM 1B is scheduled to follow its sister satellite to orbit some 15 months after. (SpaceX)

According to NASASpaceflight spaceflight reporter Michael Baylor and an Argentinian government website, SpaceX appears to have decided to move its next West Coast launch from California to Florida, signifying the first East Coast polar launch in half a century could be just four months away.

Initially expected to launch out of SpaceX’s Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) SLC-4E pad on a Falcon 9 rocket, the Argentinian space agency’s (CONAE) SAOCOM-1B Earth observation satellite was scheduled to lift off no earlier than February 2020. That launch window remains the same but Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) has somehow arranged approval to reopen the United States’ Eastern polar launch corridor. The story behind the corridor’s closure is a bizarre one.

Having earned itself a bit of notoriety and fame over the years, the story of the closure of the Eastern polar launch corridor is simple on the outset. In November 1960, a Thor Able-Star rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral for what was hoped to be a routine military launch. This particular mission carried GRAB II, a covert signals intelligence spacecraft designed to spy on radio communications around the globe.

Long story short: that Thor rocket suffered a failure that caused the booster to prematurely shut down and divert from its planned trajectory, forcing the range safety officer to manually trigger the rocket’s self-destruct mechanisms. Broken apart by explosives, one unlucky cow – standing in a Cuban field some 400 miles (650 km) downrange – was struck by rocket debris, killing the farm animal. Indeed, this might initially seem like an absurd reason to entirely end the practice of polar orbital launches from Cape Canaveral, but Cold War tensions were extremely high and President Fidel Castro leaped on the opportunity to hound the US.

Perhaps the only image online of Thor Able-Star’s November 30th, 1960 launch of GRAB II. (USAF/US Navy/Maison de Vente)
A Thor Able-Star rocket launches in July 1960, about four months before an almost identical rocket failed and killed a lone Cuban cow.

An article published in a 2008 issue of the US Naval History Magazine covers this minor debacle in greater detail, shedding some much-needed light on why things played out how they did.

“In what somewhat inaccurately became known as “the herd shot around the world,” some of the falling rocket debris apparently splattered on a Cuban farm and killed a cow. “This is a Yankee provocation,” accused Revolucion, an official Cuban publication, insisting that the rocket was deliberately exploded over the country. Government radio stations cited the incident as further proof that the United States was trying to destroy the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro. One cow was even paraded in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana wearing a placard reading “Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters.”

Castro filed a complaint at the United Nations, and Washington sheepishly conceded the possibility that “fragments from the rocket booster” could have landed in Cuba. CIA Director George Tenet later quipped somewhat tastelessly that it was “the first, and last, time that a satellite had been used in the production of ground beef.” Further launches overflying Cuba were postponed, and improvements were made to the Cape Canaveral range-safety system. In any case, it was a dejected NRL group that returned to Washington.”

Naval History Magazine – April 2008

That overflight postponement was never withdrawn and VAFB – located on the coast of California – has supported all US polar launch** activity since late-1960. Public word of the possible reopening of the Eastern polar launch corridor came 57 years later when Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing, revealed that he had tasked analysts to determine whether the corridor could be reopened in light of wildfire troubles that closed VAFB’s Western Range in 2016. They concluded that there were no obvious technical showstoppers.

**There is a report that a Thor Delta C rocket performed two sun synchronous orbit (SSO; ‘nearly polar’) launches in the mid-1960s, overflying Cuba in the process, but it’s unclear if the trajectory used was the same as those used before Thor’s 1960 GRAB II failure.

A reporter who was present at the press conference said that SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1B launch hadn’t officially been put on on the Eastern Range’s planning schedule, indicating that some work remains before it can truly be said that the Eastern polar launch corridor has been reopened. Nevertheless, Douglas Schiess, the current commander of the 45th Space Wing, was obviously confident that those final steps are more technicalities than potential showstoppers and that 21st-century Eastern polar launches are now a question of “when”, not “if”.

In Monteith’s 2017 statement, it was stated that there is one major condition on the reopening: all launch vehicles intending to fly it must feature autonomous flight termination systems (AFTS). This is due to the risk that the rocket’s plume might prevent the reliable reception of radio telemetry at Florida-based tracking stations. SpaceX is currently the only launch provider in the world to have implemented AFTS and is thus the only provider currently capable of launching polar missions from Florida.

SpaceX debuted AFTS on Falcon 9 during the February 2017 launch of CRS-10. Every SpaceX launch since has used the autonomous system. (SpaceX)

Time will tell just how extensive Florida’s polar launch capabilities are and how dramatically the new capability will impact Vandenberg’s commercial launch ecosystem. Speaking in 2017, Monteith was fairly blunt in his assessment that California was not only tepid on the subject of expanding VAFB’s commercial launch manifest, but was actively hostile at points. His point: if Vandenberg isn’t going to put effort into stimulating a commercial polar launch ecosystem, Cape Canaveral might as well try.

VAFB is currently in the throes of a four-month launch lull previously expected to last until SpaceX’s Feb. 2020 SAOCOM 1B launch. Depending on how things play out for startup Firefly Aerospace and how readily CCAFS can take to its new polar launch role, Vandenberg’s lull could easily stretch into the second half of 2020, perhaps more than a year between launches.

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SpaceX to shift Falcon 9’s next West Coast launch to Florida, the first of its kind in decades
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