Remote Launch Locations Challenge Telemetry and Communications Group
The mandate of NASA's Launch Services Program is to be able to launch any vehicle, anytime, from anywhere in the world.
The program lives up to this goal year after year, mission after mission. But launches from remote locations -- such as the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific -- put the program's mobility to the test. The Launch Services Program uses two primary launch sites: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But mission requirements occasionally call for launches from other sites, such as Kodiak Island in Alaska, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and Kwajalein.
Before the launch managers and controllers can sit down at their consoles and put on their headsets on launch day, the Telemetry and Communications Group has to arrange for data, voice and video, and get the consoles set up and configured.
"We have a fully functional mobile system," says Eric Anderson, who leads the group as chief of the program's Ground Systems Integration Branch. Standing in the plush Mission Director's Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Hangar AE, he gestures at rows of polished wood consoles housing slick computer displays. "We can provide everything you see here on a desk out at Kwajalein. Instead of a comfortable console, you're sitting in front of a laptop computer with extra displays, but the capability is all there."
Anderson's office provides end-to-end support for spacecraft and launch vehicle customers, as well as the program itself, by ensuring all parties have the necessary data, voice and video communications to accomplish all prelaunch and launch-day operations. Examples include transmitting data between the launch site and the spacecraft's mission operations center during prelaunch testing, setting up and configuring controllers' consoles, and recording and displaying vehicle and spacecraft telemetry during liftoff and ascent.
The Telemetry and Communications Group begins planning for launches from Kwajalein several months before liftoff. Equipment shipped to the launch facility also must be tested to ensure all hardware is ready for use.
The IBEX launch in 2008 introduced a new set of logistical challenges to the team's usual preparations, from arranging for satellite coverage to negotiating an eight-hour time difference. The Kwajalein, Vandenberg and Kennedy sites all were tied in through satellite, running simultaneously during launch for the first time.
Another unique feature of the Launch Services Program's ground system is its ability to process and display data for multiple launch vehicles simultaneously. Although no more than four vehicles are typically monitored at a given time, every console could be set to monitor a different vehicle. Additionally, if the entire system is dedicated to a particular vehicle, it can be reset and dedicated to a different vehicle in as little as half an hour.
The Telemetry and Communications team members rely heavily on their years of experience to maintain excellence and provide for a successful liftoff -- from anywhere in the world.
Anna C. Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center