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Air Force's Vandenberg Team Guides Nation's Critical Space Launches

Whether it's launching a nationalsecurity payload with anAtlas 5 rocket Monday night or rehearsing for the West Coast debut ofthemighty Delta 4-Heavy, these are active times for Vandenberg Air ForceBase's4th Space Launch Squadron.

"We perform better and are happiestwhen we arebusy," Lt. Col. Brady Hauboldt, the squadron commander, said in arecentinterview.

The squadron's mission is overseeingthe Evolved ExpendableLaunch Vehicles flownfrom Vandenberg carrying satellites into highly-inclined andpolar orbits.Situated 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the base is the primaryU.S. siteto launch spacecraft into such advantageous vantage points. [ParkedCar Stir During Spysat Launch]

The EELV program created the Atlas 5and Delta 4 fleets toreplace the military's older booster designs with modern and modularrocketfamilies.

That transition even led tore-branding the 4th SLS.

"The 4th Space Launch Squadron wasformed in 1994 tosupport Titan missions at Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 4, thenre-chartered in 2003 to operate the Atlas5 and Delta 4launch systems. Today, we execute Western Range EvolvedExpendable LaunchVehicle spacelift operations with a combined team of engineers, spaceoperators, program managers and missile maintenance technicians,"Hauboldtsaid.

About 100 people work in thesquadron, including Air Forceofficers and enlisted personnel, civilians and engineering supportcontractors.[LatestVandenberglaunch updates.]

It takes years of work to ensure eachrocket launch isconducted successfully, placing its cargo into the correct orbit for alonglife to perform reconnaissance and monitor the world.

The squadron is positioned with vitalroles andresponsibilities to ensure the launches achieve that success:

Mission assurance:"Our mission assurance corecompetency is associated with checking and double-checking thecountlessprocedures that occur here at the launch base. Rockets are not fullyready tolaunch when they leave factory. They come in here needing variousstates ofintegration, removal and replacement of parts and final installationandcheckout of many more," Hauboldt says.

"Our mission assurance technicians,missile maintainersby career field in the Air Force, oversee the United Launch Allianceproceduresout at the pad to make sure everything goes smoothly. They document anydeviations from those procedures, and that becomes part of the finalmissionassurance roll-up that occurs prior to launch."

Launch campaign integration:"That's bringingall of the diverse stakeholders in a launch campaign together,"Hauboldtsays.

"Their job is to bring all of theelements of thislaunch campaign into a cohesive mission, get us ready for the readinessreviewsand make sure all of the boxes are checked before we get to launch."

The different groups involved in Monday'sAtlas 5 flight, for instance, include rocket-builder UnitedLaunchAlliance, the program leaders at the Air Force's Space and MissileSystemsCenter, engineering help from the Aerospace Corp., the NationalReconnaissanceOffice payload customer and facilitators at Vandenberg's 30th SpaceWing.

Launch operations:"We provide the backbone ofthe launch operations team in support of the mission director, in thiscase,the director of the NRO's Office of Space Launch. We focus on twopieces ofthat day-of-launch team, and that's to provide launch vehicle support,as wellas provide the interface with the launch base," Hauboldt says.

System sustainment: Thesquadron is the caretaker forthe pads at Space Launch Complexes 3 and 6, where the Atlas 5 and Delta4rockets are flown, plus it ensures the ground support is there toconduct theflights.

"Our system sustainmentresponsibilities extend beyondjust the launch pads. There's an expansive infrastructure here atVandenbergthat's required to support EELV operations. Everything from power,roadways fortransportation, gaseous nitrogen and other commodity support we need tomakesure is in place and as good as we can make it before launch. Today,I'm happyto report Vandenberg infrastructure is in the best shape it's been inmanyyears," Hauboldt says.

The Atlas 5 has launched twice beforefrom Vandenberg,successfully carrying out the NROL-28 mission in 2008 and the DMSP F18weathersatellite last October. Both of those rockets encountered long stays onthe padfor payload-related delays, but Monday's upcoming launch hasexperienced arelatively rapid journey toward liftoff.

"As our third Atlas 5 mission, thislaunch represents aturning point in Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle operations here atVandenberg," said Hauboldt.

"Previous missions, including lastyear's launch of theDefense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft, have averaged morethan500 days of launch base processing. This launch campaign has included337procedures and countless inspections, completed in just over 120 days;provingthe 30th Space Wing's responsiveness to integrate, process and test theAtlas 5at a far higher rate."

Hauboldt says his team expects tokeep the pace going inpreparation for its subsequent Atlas mission targeted for next springcarryinganother classified National Reconnaissance Office payload.

"Our next Atlas 5, just months away,will further showthat we can continue this operations tempo in support of Atlas 5customerscoming to the Western Range and supporting our troops in harm's wayaround theworld."

Meanwhile, the Delta4-Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 6 is undergoing anextensive seriesof demonstrations to iron out the bugs before the mammoth booster makesitsinaugural West Coast blastoff in January with a spy satellite that theintelligence community is really counting on.

"We have had a very busy summer withtwo tanking testsbehind us. We did have some challenges on our Wet Dress Rehearsalassociatedwith some ground support equipment, which we are working through rightnow and(we are) working to reschedule that Wet Dress later this month,"Hauboldtsaid.

The tanking tests were aimed atexercising the procedures toload the triple-barrel rocket with supercold liquid oxygen and liquidhydrogenfuel. The WDR follows a realistic launch day script to practice thecountdowntimeline.

Vandenberg performed a pair of Delta4 launches with therocket's Medium-style variants in 2006 for the NROL-22 mission and theDMSP F17satellite.

Hoping all their efforts for theAtlas 5's NROL-41 missionare rewarded with a flawless launch Monday night, the squadron membersknowthey won't have much time to celebrate. Focus quickly turns to finishthe finalmonths of work on the Heavy and welcoming the next Atlas 5 when it isdeliveredto Vandenberg in the next 60 days.

"The team has really come together ingetting ready forthis mission, in particular, but building a strong team that will carryus intothe Delta 4-Heavy after the New Year and an Atlas launch again in thespring.It's an exciting time at the 4th Space Launch Squadron."

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Justin Ray

Justin Ray is the former editor of the space launch and news site Spaceflight Now, where he covered a wide range of missions by NASA, the U.S. military and space agencies around the world. Justin was space reporter for Florida Today and served as a public affairs intern with Space Launch Delta 45 at what is now the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station before joining the Spaceflight Now team. In 2017, Justin joined the United Launch Alliance team, a commercial launch service provider.