Courtesy Coast Guard Reservist Magazine
The Coast Guard provides a vital presence at sea for space launches that take place from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In efforts with the Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and commercial launch providers, the Coast Guard ensures maritime safety and security for every space launch. Coast Guard support to space operations encompass a variety of mission sets including regulation of maritime support vessels, oversight of pollution/hazard response, search and rescue, anti-terrorism and force protection, and the establishment and enforcement of limited access areas during launches and recovery to protect mariners and boaters from potentially hazardous conditions.
It is important for the Coast Guard to act to ensure the marine transportation system, and its mariners, are protected while also enabling a clear maritime range for successful launch and recovery operations. Each launch is unique, and Sector Jacksonville applies a flexible, risk-based approach to employing resources and personnel based on a variety of factors like the payload, pollution/hazards present, time of day, expected maritime traffic or concurrent events, etc. For example, a NASA astronaut-manned launch on a weekend with increased traffic and spectators is likely to have greater risk than a routine, weekday commercial satellite launch.
For the first time since the beginning of the U.S. Space Program, government, military, and commercial space providers are expected to exceed 50 launch operations a year, which now include booster recovery to drone ships at sea, crewed astronaut launches, and space tourism. This mission is expected to continue to grow over the next few years and Sector Jacksonville’s role in space operations, Operation Solar Guardian, is predicted to support 100 launches by 2025. In fiscal year 2021 (FY21), there was a 200% increase in launches that occurred in FY19.
The schedule alone can be tricky. Space launches are often re-scheduled or “scrubbed” on short notice, creating a one in three probability of a launch occurring when scheduled. The Coast Guard is scheduled to support approximately 150 launch opportunities in a given year. For example, in FY21, there were 34 launches with 96 scrubbed launches—nearly all of which required deploying watch standers and assets prior to scrub.
In addition to the myriad Coast Guard space operations responsibilities and enforceable authorities, for each launch, the Coast Guard provides a watch stander at the Launch Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and a second watch stander at the Morrell Operations Center (MOC). These watch standers are integrated into joint Department of Defense and commercial entity incident management and operational response. Personnel in both of these watch standing positions must complete requisite personnel qualification standard (PQS) and be fully qualified for the position. A typical watch lasts four or more hours and can vary in length due to a variety of factors including weather, scrubs, window opportunity for launch, etc. With 150 launch opportunities and active duty personnel from local units (Sector Jacksonville, Marine Safety Detachment Port Canaveral, and Station Canaveral) engaged in other space support roles and functions, Sector Jacksonville created a candidate pool of reservists who have the flexibility to augment support to space operations and mitigate the gap in resources.
Reserve support is not new to the U.S. Space Program. Coast Guard reservists supported NASA during its space shuttle days and currently, Space Launch Delta 45, reimburses the Coast Guard for one full-time equivalent (FTE) chief petty officer, a position typically filled by a reservist on one-year active duty orders.
This position is the central point for receipt, dissemination, and updates to scheduled launches and serves as liaison to Space Launch Delta 45 and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. While the chief is the primary MOC watch stander, the increase in the number of space launches has quickly created a need for additional manpower support.
In FY21, Sector Jacksonville instituted a pilot program to integrate reservists into the EOC/MOC watch stander positions with successful results. So far, two reservists have qualified as EOC watch standers with a total of five reservists supporting more than 30 launch opportunities in a six-month time span, and the level of support continues its current glide path. Sector Jacksonville’s goal for FY22 is to continue to leverage reservists for support to space operations. However, even with reserve support, the growing space industry is exceeding Coast Guard capabilities and capacity. Manpower requirements continue to increase, and an augmentation of active and reserve staff and assets are needed to continue to support the space mission.
For the first time in history of the Space Program, the missions are routinely commercial and heavily maritime focused with a space support vessel fleet expected to grow to more than 20 uniquely designed vessels by the end of 2023, necessitating increased Coast Guard involvement. The Coast Guard continues to prioritize the safety and security of commercial and recreational maritime traffic during launch operations and is poised to respond to search and rescue or hazmat response in its support of space operations.
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