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The Cape, Chapter 3, Section 1

Medium and Light Military Space Operations

Medium Launch Vehicle and Payload Operations

the beginning of 1971, the Cape's medium military space operations were carried out by contractors and coordinated through two of the 6555th Aerospace Test Group's divisions: the ATLAS Systems Division and the TITAN III Systems Division. Under the direction of Lt. Colonel Bobby J. Hilbert, the ATLAS Systems Division supervised ATLAS/AGENA operations on Complex 13. The Division had thirteen officers, nine airmen and five civilians assigned in January 1971, and their tasks included payload and launch vehicle test planning, integration and control. Five different contractors provided the major components and services for the ATLAS/AGENA launch system. Rocketdyne provided the ATLAS vehicle's liquid rocket engines, and General Dynamics Convair (GDC) provided the ATLAS launch vehicle and launch services. Lockheed Missile and Space Company (LMSC) provided the AGENA upper stage and assisted with its integration atop the ATLAS vehicle. General Electric operated the ATLAS MOD III ground controlled radio guidance system, and Burroughs operated the MOD III's computer system. Though General Dynamics Convair and Lockheed Missiles and Space Company had the lion's share of contractor personnel working ATLAS/AGENA operations, General Electric, Burroughs and Rocketdyne had about three dozen employees working on three different contracts for the ATLAS/AGENA program at the Cape. General Dynamics operated Complex 13 and hangars J, K, Little J and Little K. Lockheed worked at the Satellite Support Building and hangars E and AA. General Electric and Burroughs operated the MOD III Guidance Facility at the Cape. Elsewhere on the Cape, the TITAN III Systems Division's payloads branch coordinated British SKYNET II and NATO communications satellite missions with NASA and its contractors. (The NATO and SKYNET II satellites were launched on DELTA boosters under NASA's direction at Complex 17.) The Payloads Branch also handled much of the preliminary coordination with NASA on ATLAS/CENTAUR Fleet Satellite Communications (FLTSATCOM) missions before technical surveillance of the effort was transferred to the ATLAS Systems Division in June 1973. That change was relatively minor, but the 6555th cut across heavy (TITAN) and medium (ATLAS and DELTA) launch vehicle/payload lines when it complied with the 6595th Commander's request to reorganize those resources under the Satellite Systems Division and the Space Launch Vehicle Systems Division on 1 November 1975. Thereafter, the focus for medium military space operations revolved around the ATLAS/AGENA Launch Operations Branch and various project officers in the Satellite Systems Division.1

On 2 February 1971, A DELTA launch vehicle carrying the NATO IIB communications satellite lifted off Pad 17A on a successful mission at 2042:00 Eastern Standard Time. The flight was a NASA-directed operation, but members of the TITAN III Systems Division's payloads branch were tasked to help contractors check out the satellite and verify the NATO IIB's readiness for launch. Later in the year, the ATLAS Systems Division worked with contractors to prepare a vehicle and payload for a classified ATLAS/AGENA launch from Complex 13. Unfortunately, that mission failed after the launch vehicle malfunctioned during its flight on the evening of 4 December 1971. The next two ATLAS/AGENA missions were completed successfully on 20 December 1972 and 6 March 1973. Both missions involved classified experimental satellites which were boosted into earth orbit. In the meantime, the TITAN III Systems Division Payloads Branch coordinated installation of the Remote Vehicle Checkout Facility (RVCF), which would be used to verify a satellite's ability to receive and respond to telemetry and command signals sent from remote tracking stations in the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) network. Following equipment installation and system validation, the RVCF was declared "operational" on 1 September 1972.2

Figure 96: NATO IIB launch
2 February 1971

The Payloads Branch became the TITAN IIIC Satellite Systems Office in early 1973, and it continued to support the British SKYNET II military communications satellite program as well as half a dozen other space-related programs. Regarding the SKYNET II program, the British wanted their satellites placed in synchronous equatorial orbits at an altitude of approximately 22,300 miles. Two earlier SKYNET satellites had been launched, but only one had been orbited successfully. The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence delayed the next SKYNET launch (SKYNET II-A) for some time, and the spacecraft did not arrive at the Cape until 11 December 1973. Payload processing in the Satellite Assembly Building went fairly smoothly, and the spacecraft was mated at the launch pad to an extended long tank DELTA launch vehicle equipped with three Castor II solid rocket motors. The SKYNET II-A payload was launched from Pad 17B on 18 January 1974 at 2039:00 Eastern Standard Time. Though the initial phase of the launch went well, the DELTA's second stage guidance system malfunctioned, and the payload was lost in space until the Air Force Satellite Control Facility discovered it in an unusable low-Earth orbit six days later. Despite efforts to save the spacecraft, the SKYNET II-A was destroyed as it reentered the atmosphere over the southwest Pacific Ocean on 27 January 1974.3

The next payload in the SKYNET series was SKYNET II-B, and it arrived at the Cape in 1974. Due to modifications underway at the Satellite Assembly Building, the spacecraft was diverted to NASA Hangar AE for processing. Following a successful checkout, the SKYNET II-B was transported to Pad 17B and mated to an extended long tank DELTA equipped with three Castor II solid rocket motors. The mission was launched on 22 November 1974 at 1928:00 Eastern Standard Time, and it was highly successful. Like the SKYNET A launched five years earlier, the SKYNET II-B was placed in a near synchronous equatorial orbit over the Indian Ocean. The SKYNET II-B continued to operate successfully for the next ten years.4

Figure 97: SKYNET B launch
19 August 1970

As we noted earlier, the ATLAS Systems Division was given responsibility for coordinating FLTSATCOM missions with NASA in June 1973. In addition to planning the first flights, the Division was expected to monitor launch vehicle and payload flight readiness despite NASA's overall direction of the launches at Complex 36. The first ATLAS/CENTAUR FLTSATCOM flight was projected to occur in 1975, but the date continued to slip through the end of 1975 until it was not expected before 1978. As a result of this circumstance, other medium launch vehicle missions continued to dominate the ATLAS Systems Division's attention (and that of its successors in other organizations) through 1978. Much of the activity centered on operations at Complex 13 and hangars E and J . Launches were few and far between, but an ATLAS/AGENA vehicle was launched from Complex 13 at 0500:00 Eastern Daylight Time on 18 June 1975. The classified payload aboard the vehicle included various scientific experiments, and it was placed in orbit successfully. The ATLAS/AGENA launch program remained dormant for nearly two years before its next classified mission was launched from Complex 13 on 23 May 1977. That mission got underway with a lift-off at 1313:00 Eastern Daylight Time. No significant problems were noted, and "user requirements were met." Another classified payload was boosted into space from Complex 13 on the evening of 11 December 1977, and the last ATLAS/AGENA mission was launched at 1945:00 Eastern Standard Time on 6 April 1978. Both missions were successful.5

Figure 98: SKYNET II-A launch
18 January 1974

Under the direction of Major Jerry H. Freer, the Satellite Systems Division pursued other medium military space missions with NASA. Toward the end of 1975, the Division completed final preparations for the NATO IIIA communications satellite, which was expected to arrive at the Cape on 14 January 1976. The satellite finally arrived on 15 March 1976, and it was processed in NASA's Hangar AO before it was moved to Area 60A on April 7th for Apogee Kick Motor (AKM) installation and fueling. After those actions were completed, the spacecraft was weighed. The NATO IIIA was transferred to Complex 17, where it was mated to a DELTA booster on 15 April 1976. The payload fairing was installed on April 20th, and the mission was launched successfully from Pad 17B at 1546:00 Eastern Standard Time on 22 April 1976. After the spacecraft was placed in a nominal transfer orbit, the Air Force Satellite Control Facility fired the AKM to place the NATO IIIA in a 22,300-nautical-mile near synchronous orbit at 18 degrees west longitude. All but one spacecraft system performed satisfactorily, and the mission was a success.6

Under the direction of Lt. Colonel Russell E. Vreeland, Jr., the Satellite Systems Division supported prelaunch processing operations for the NATO IIIB spacecraft. The NATO IIIB arrived at the Cape's Skid Strip on 15 December 1976, and it was taken to NASA's Hangar AO for checkout. The satellite's Remote Vehicle Checkout Facility testing was completed on December 17th, and its communications and electrical checks were completed on 10 January 1977. The spacecraft was transported to Area 60A on the 10th, and the AKM was installed and fueled. After the NATO IIIB was mated to the DELTA third stage, it was transported from Area 60A to Pad 17B on 20 January 1977. Following final mating and launch readiness tests at the pad, DELTA 128 lifted off at 1950:00 Eastern Standard Time on 27 January 1977. The payload was placed in a highly elliptical synchronous transfer orbit. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility at Sunnyvale, California fired the spacecraft's AKM two days later to circularize the NATO IIIB's orbit. On-orbit checkout proceeded smoothly, and the satellite took up its station at 135 degrees west longitude, over the eastern Pacific Ocean.7

Figure 99: NATO IIIA launch
22 April 1976

After years of preparation and scheduling delays, the first FLTSATCOM spacecraft finally arrived at the Skid Strip on 2 December 1977. The FLTSATCOM F-1 was transported to the Satellite Assembly Building (SAB) for its receiving inspection, and pressure/leak tests were completed successfully a few days later. The spacecraft's Reaction Control System (RCS) was tested from 7 through 13 December 1977, and the Apogee Kick Motor's safe and arm devices were checked out by December 21st. A special 200-hour-long "burn-in" test was required to check for a transistor problem discovered on the FLTSATCOM F-2 spacecraft (still at the factory), but that test was completed on December 22nd with no problems. Following the last of its receiving inspections, the spacecraft was transported to the Satellite Assembly and Encapsulation Facility on 5 January 1978. Processing was delayed about two weeks due to another F-2 spacecraft anomaly (e.g., bad resistors and transistors), but processing continued after the SAMSO Commander authorized use of the existing components on the F-1. The spacecraft was moved to Pad 36A on 28 January 1978, and it was mated to the ATLAS/CENTAUR (AC-44) launch vehicle. Following its final compatibility and launch readiness tests, the vehicle lifted off at 1617:00 Eastern Standard Time on 9 February 1978. The spacecraft entered the proper transfer orbit approximately 1510 seconds after launch. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility fired the spacecraft's AKM on the fifth orbit (i.e., about two days later), and the subsequent "burn" placed the FLTSATCOM F-1 in a nearly geostationary orbit 22,300 nautical miles above the equator at 100 degrees west longitude. From that location, the F-1 provided 23 channels of super high frequency communications to meet vital needs in the Defense Department and the Presidential Command Network. The mission was a success.8

The NATO IIIC spacecraft was the next medium military payload to be processed at the Cape, and it arrived at the Skid Strip on 18 September 1978. The satellite's validation processing began fairly quickly in the fall of 1978, but it hit a snag when two signal strength anomalies were discovered in the NATO IIIC's downlink telemetry system. Extensive troubleshooting traced the problem to a radio frequency switch, which was removed and returned to Ford Aerospace and Communications Corporation for rework and retesting. A replacement switch and a new power amplifier module were installed in the spacecraft, and processing continued. Following mating with its DELTA third stage, the NATO IIIC was taken out to Pad 17B and mated to its launch vehicle. The mission was launched at 1946:00 Eastern Standard Time on 18 November 1978, and the spacecraft entered the prescribed 100 x 19,232-nautical-mile transfer orbit successfully. Two days later, the Air Force Satellite Control Facility fired the spacecraft's AKM to circularize the NATO IIIC's orbit. On-orbit testing was routine, and the satellite was released to NATO in February 1979. The NATO IIIC was placed in orbital storage initially, where it served as a backup satellite for the other two NATO III satellites in the constellation.9

As we noted earlier, the FLTSATCOM F-2 had more than its share of transistor and resistor problems at the factory in 1977 and 1978, but the spacecraft finally arrived at the Cape on 30 March 1979. The F-2's pressurization and leak tests were completed at the Satellite Assembly Building on April 4th. A systems test followed, and the spacecraft was moved to the Remote Vehicle Control Facility to verify its telemetry systems and responsiveness to commands. Following those tests, the spacecraft was transferred to the Spacecraft Assembly and Encapsulation Facility on April 17th. The F-2's Apogee Kick Motor was installed shortly thereafter. A minor pressure problem delayed the completion of final fueling and pressurization until April 20th, but final mechanical closeout and encapsulation tasks were completed on April 25th. The payload was moved out to Complex 36 and mated to its ATLAS/CENTAUR vehicle. Following an on-stand function and certification test on April 27th and a practice countdown on April 28th, the vehicle was readied for launch. Though the countdown on May 3rd had to be aborted at T minus 90 minutes due to inoperative thermistors on the Apogee Kick Motor, the integrity of the AKM's igniter circuitry was tested and reconfirmed, and the countdown was recycled the following day. The lift-off was recorded at 1557:00 Eastern Daylight Time on 4 May 1979. The spacecraft was placed in a proper transfer orbit and (later) geosynchronous orbit. On-orbit testing was completed successfully in mid-July 1979.10

Figure 100: Prelaunch Test for the FLTSATCOM F-1 mission
9 February 1978
Figure 101: FLTSATCOM F-2 launch
4 May 1979

The third FLTSATCOM spacecraft (FLTSATCOM F-3) was scheduled for launch on 4 December 1979, but the mission was delayed about six weeks to correct problems in the launch vehicle's hydraulic and pneumatic systems. In the meantime, the payload could not be processed through the Satellite Assembly Building due to scheduling conflicts, and it had to be diverted to NASA's Hangar AM instead. Those workarounds aside, the F-3 was launched from Pad 36A on 17 January 1980 at 2026:00 Eastern Standard Time. Two days later, the Air Force Satellite Control Facility fired the spacecraft's Apogee Kick Motor to place the FLTSATCOM spacecraft in its final equatorial orbit 22,250 miles above the Atlantic Ocean. The mission was successful.11

Two more FLTSATCOM satellites were launched on ATLAS/CENTAUR vehicles from Pad 36A in October 1980 and August 1981. The FLTSATCOM-D was launched on 30 October 1980 at 10:54 p.m. (local time), and it was placed in near geosynchronous orbit over the Pacific Ocean. The FLTSATCOM-E spacecraft was launched on 6 August 1981 at 0316:00 Eastern Daylight Time. Though the FLTSATCOM-E's orbit was eccentric and lower than desired, ground controllers eventually coaxed the satellite into a satisfactory orbit. Unfortunately, the satellite had suffered considerable damage to its solar panels during the flight into space, and its UHF receive antenna could not be deployed. The FLTSATCOM-E remained in orbit as a spare satellite for the FLTSATCOM network.12

Figure 102: FLTSATCOM F-3 launch
17 January 1980

Under the direction of Lt. Colonel James E. Stangel, the Satellite Systems Division prepared in the early 1980s to support a wide variety of military spacecraft programs including: 1) the DSCS III communications satellite program, 2) the DSP satellite program, 3) follow-on processing operations for the SKYNET and NATO III satellite programs and 4) the introduction of NAVSTAR Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) processing operations at the Cape. (As the reader will recall, DSCS and DSP missions were discussed in connection with heavy military space operations in Chapter II, so only the other programs deserve further comment.) Concerning the NATO III program, the Spacecraft Program Office announced in November 1982 that the NATO IIIE spacecraft would not be procured, but the NATO IIID would be launched as a "gap-filler" until enhanced NATO IV communications satellites entered service sometime after 1987. The Satellite Systems Division completed its review of  SKYNET IV  documentation in 1983, and the Memorandum of Agreement and Program Requirements Document were signed by the British, the Air Force and NASA later in the year. By the end of 1983, the first SKYNET IV payload (SKYNET IV-A) was scheduled to be launched on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in December 1985, and the SKYNET IV-B was on Columbia's manifest for a June 1986 Shuttle launch. The Division's GPS program efforts in 1983 and 1984 focused on military construction projects to modify Cape facilities to support the new satellite program. Though GPS satellites were supposed to be launched aboard the Space Shuttle, they were diverted to DELTA II boosters after the Challenger disaster in January 1986. Let's look at each of these developments in turn-the NATO IIID mission, SKYNET IV developments and the evolution of the NAVSTAR GPS program at the Cape in the 1980s and early 1990s.13

Figure 103: NATO IIID launch
14 November 1984

The NATO IIID mission suffered a number of setbacks and delays in 1984, but it was launched after several reschedulings late in the year. The spacecraft's primary and backup apogee kick motors were inspected at the Cape's ordnance area in October 1983. As plans to launch the satellite in May 1984 continued, Space Division rightly suspected that the mission would be delayed by the late arrival of essential parts from spacecraft subcontractors. The spacecraft eventually arrived at the Cape on 22 August 1984, and the first two stages of its DELTA launch vehicle were erected on Pad 17A in anticipation of an 18 October launch. Unfortunately, launch base processing had to be halted after a Travelling Wave Tube Amplifier (TWTA) problem surfaced at the factory in October to cast doubt on the reliability of TWTA assemblies everywhere. The spacecraft's TWTAs were removed from its communications system and tested. After passing the tests, the TWTAs were reinstalled, and the spacecraft was mated to its DELTA third stage on November 4th. The NATO IIID was transferred from the DELTA Spin Test Facility (DSTF) to the launch pad, and the spacecraft was mated to the DELTA launch vehicle shortly thereafter. The final spacecraft closeout and fairing installation operations were completed in time for a launch attempt on November 12th, but the countdown was scrubbed on that date due to high wind shear in the upper atmosphere. The countdown was picked up again at 1849Z (Greenwich Mean Time) on November 13th, and it proceeded uneventfully to lift-off at 0034Z on 14 November 1984. The spacecraft was placed in the desired 225 x 19,323-nautical-mile transfer orbit, and the Air Force Satellite Control Facility fired the NATO IIID's Apogee Kick Motor to circularize the spacecraft's orbit two days later. On-orbit testing was completed successfully, and the NATO IIID entered service as a spare for the NATO III satellite constellation.14

Figure 104: Commercial TITAN III launch of SKYNET IV spacecraft
1 January 1990 

Though the SKYNET IV-A and SKYNET IV-B were supposed to be launched via Space Shuttle in December 1985 and June 1986, the two missions were slipped in 1985 to June and December 1986 before the Challenger disaster derailed them completely. Eventually, the SKYNET spacecraft were diverted to other launch vehicles. On 11 December 1988, the SKYNET IV-B was launched on an ARIANE 4 launch vehicle from the European Space Agency's ELA-2 launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana. Lift-off occurred at 0033:41Z, and the spacecraft was injected into the proper orbit. Another SKYNET IV spacecraft was launched along with a Japanese communications satellite from Complex 40 on the first Commercial TITAN III vehicle on 1 January 1990. That mission had the dubious distinction of being one of the most "scrubbed" missions in the Cape's history. Following the first launch attempt, which was scrubbed on 7 December 1989 due to an error in guidance software, countdowns were started on seven subsequent occasions between December 8th and the end of the month. Finally, on 31 December 1989, the countdown was picked up at 1607Z, and it proceeded uneventfully to a successful launch at 0007:01Z on January 1st. A third SKYNET IV communications satellite was launched successfully from Kourou by the European Space Agency at 2246:04Z on 30 August 1990.15

The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925

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