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The Cape, Chapter 3, Section 9

Medium and Light Military Space Operations


There remains the matter of light military space operations at the Cape. Following the demise of the BLUE SCOUT JUNIOR program in the last half of 1965, there were no really light military space launch operations at the Cape until the advent of the STARLAB/STARBIRD program in the mid-to-late 1980s. Under the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program of that period, a series of STARLAB experiments was planned to evaluate laser beam pointing, target acquisition, cooperative beacon tracking and stability. A double neodymium YAG laser would be used to illuminate various targets (e.g., ground targets, coplanar space targets and target boards carried on the fourth stage of a STARBIRD launch vehicle), and a helium-neon laser would be used to score the engagements. The STARLAB payload would be carried into orbit aboard Spacelab in the Space Shuttle's cargo bay. Under the original concept, two or three STARBIRD vehicles would be launched during a Shuttle/STARLAB mission, but only one STARBIRD vehicle would be launched on a "single pass." Wake Island was designated as one of two STARBIRD launch sites, and the Cape was chosen for the other STARBIRD site. Based on the Program Introduction (PI) document distributed on 12 May 1987, the 6550th civil engineers considered Complex 20 to be the best launch site for the STARBIRD program. The U.S. Army Strategic Defense Command (USADC) was responsible for the STARBIRD's design, validation and launch. It also agreed to pay all expenses associated with the STARBIRD program at the Cape.50

Figure 130: Complex 20 Blockhouse
September 1989

On 23 September 1987, the ESMC Commander signed the Statement of Capability for the STARBIRD program's construction and flight support at the Cape. Though the final configuration of the four-stage STARBIRD vehicle was unknown, the design package for STARBIRD launch facilities was sent to the Army on 13 October 1987 for approval. As program requirements continued to change, the STARLAB Shuttle mission was slipped to September 1990, then November 1990, and eventually August 1991. Though the overall objectives of the program did not change appreciably, technical details-such as the final configuration of the STARBIRD vehicle-changed markedly due to Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty constraints. In the meantime, the facility contract for STARBIRD modifications to Complex 20 was awarded to Butler Construction Company on 1 November 1988. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers met with Butler on 6 December 1988 to discuss: 1) the construction of two STARBIRD launch pads and 2) the renovation of Complex 20's blockhouse and ready building. Butler went to work on Complex 20 in early January 1989 under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers. Construction proceeded well, and Complex 20 was turned over to the Range in early December 1989. Earlier, the Eastern Test Range organization had been tasked to design and procure hardware for the retransmission of STARBIRD payload data from the Cape and Wake Island. By April 1989, the ETR's design for an elastic buffer to retransmit the data had been approved. Installation of STARBIRD's major instrumentation systems was expected to begin in February 1990.51

Figure 131: Looking East from atop Pad at Complex 20
April 1989

The new STARBIRD facility consisted of two launch pads with 58-foot-tall rail launchers, two Launch Equipment Buildings (LEBs), a Launch Support Center (LSC) and a Payload Assembly Building (PAB). It also had a Payload Support Center (PSC), a Vehicle Support Center (VSC) at the blockhouse and a Missile Assembly Building (MAB) off-site. The facility contractor was still struggling to complete punch list items in several areas in April 1990, but the initial STARBIRD test launch had slipped to early October 1990 by that time. In any event, the first STARLAB mission was not likely to occur before 1992. The first of two STARBIRD rail launchers arrived at Complex 20 on 5 September 1990, and Space Data Corporation erected the launcher (with help from the range contractor) over the next few weeks. Facility construction was virtually complete by the fall of 1990, and the initial STARBIRD launch was rescheduled for mid-December 1990.52

Following an untroubled countdown, the first four-stage STARBIRD vehicle was launched from Pad 20A at 0337:25Z on 18 December 1990. The primary objective of the first flight was to provide a booster and post-boost target vehicle for the Army's Ultraviolet Plume Instrument (UVPI) so the latter could demonstrate its ability to acquire, point cameras and track the STARBIRD's third and fourth stages. In addition to the LACE/UVPI spacecraft in near-circular orbit 550 kilometers above Earth, a specially-equipped ARGUS aircraft flew south and west of the Cape to detect the STARBIRD's hardware "in the presence of the (rocket) plume" and capture infrared and visible light data on the flight. A High Altitude Observatory (HALO) aircraft also flew a circuit about 60 kilometers downrange to gather spectrometric data and validate the various stages' plumes. The Innovative Science and Technology Facility (ISTF) on Merritt Island was tasked to cover the STARBIRD's first stage separation and impact, and Malabar's Atlantic Laser Ground Station (ALGS) directed green laser light on the vehicle in a demonstration of passive and active tracking abilities.53

The STARBIRD suborbital flight on 18 December 1990 took just 228 seconds to complete, and the vehicle's fourth stage splashed down approximately 262 miles downrange. In that brief space of time, the flight validated the STARBIRD's performance and allowed the Army to characterize the vehicle's rocket plumes. The experiment successfully demonstrated the Ultraviolet Plume Instrument's tracking abilities, and the mission's combined data collection effort helped resolve tracking issues associated with passive sensor algorithms and laser return algorithms. Within hours of the flight, the Strategic Defense Initiative Office announced the STARBIRD mission looked like "a 100 percent success."54

No STARBIRD missions were launched from Complex 20 in 1991 or 1992, but the facility supported a different military space effort in 1991. Under the RED TIGRESS program, two ARIES single-stage M56A1 solid rocket boosters were launched from Pad 20A's STARBIRD rail launcher on 20 August and 14 October 1991. Both flights were sponsored by the Foreign Technology Division's Strategic Defense Initiative Office. The purpose of each flight was to boost and eject nine separate experiments into space between 140 and 546 seconds after lift-off. Each flight was expected to last only ten minutes, but considerable effort was required to coordinate each mission's instrumentation requirements and get the flights off the ground. In addition to a  full complement of tracking radars, telemetry and optical systems, five specially instrumented aircraft, the HAYSTACK/MILLSTONE and PAVE PAWS radar systems, Malabar's Atlantic Laser Ground Station and Goddard Space Flight Center's large visible optics tracking telescope were pressed into service to gather an enormous amount of spectroscopic and radar data on each flight.55

Figure 132: STARBIRD Vehicle on Rail Launcher
December 1990
Figure 133: STARBIRD launch
18 December 1990
Figure 134: RED TIGRESS Vehicle on Launcher
Figure 135: RED TIGRESS launch
20 August 1991

The first RED TIGRESS flight was scheduled for 15 August 1991, but the contractor (Orbital Sciences Corporation) needed more time to test the ARIES' flight termination system. The launch was rescheduled for August 20th. Unfortunately, following lift-off at 0945:48Z, the ARIES veered 90 degrees off-course, and it had to be destroyed about 23 seconds into the flight. The second RED TIGRESS flight should have followed within 72 hours of the first flight, but it was delayed approximately two weeks while the flight failure was investigated. A countdown was attempted on 2 September 1991, but it was scrubbed due to a vehicle telemetry problem. The mission was delayed through the end of September to give the contractor time to handle booster flight control and hardware problems at OSC's facility in Chandler, Arizona. The second ARIES vehicle finally got off the ground at 1017:20Z on 14 October 1991. Though user requirements on two of four telemetry links were not met due to insufficient signal strength late in the mission, Jonathan Dickinson's telemetry performance generally met expectations. Other instrumentation support was highly satisfactory, and the Orbital Sciences Corporation was reportedly "very happy" with the successful mission.56

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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