The Cape, Chapter 3, Section 6

Medium and Light Military Space Operations

ATLAS/CENTAUR Missions at the Cape

ATLAS/CENTAUR military space operations deserve further comment before we move on to light military space operations. Following the FLTSATCOM-E launch on 6 August 1981, there was a lull in military space operations at Complex 36 for about four and one-half years. The Air Force eventually called on NASA to arrange the launch of two more FLTSATCOM spacecraft on General Dynamics' ATLAS G/CENTAUR vehicles in 1986, and the first of those ATLAS Gs arrived at the Skid Strip on 5 March 1986. The booster was destined to launch the FLTSATCOM-G model satellite, which would be redesignated the FLTSATCOM F-7 once it was in orbit. Unfortunately, the mission was delayed several months pending the investigation of the DELTA 178 launch failure, which occurred in May 1986. The FLTSATCOM-G spacecraft finally arrived at the Cape on 29 September 1986. The satellite was checked out at NASA's Hangar AM, then it was moved to Explosive Safe Area 60 (ESA-60) on October 19th. At ESA-60, the spacecraft was mated to its Apogee Kick Motor (AKM), and it was loaded with attitude control propellant. The payload shroud was attached on November 11th, and the spacecraft and fairing were mated to the launch vehicle on 21 November 1986. Prelaunch preparations were completed, and the countdown endured only one unplanned hold of 25 minutes before the count resumed. The ATLAS G/CENTAUR lifted off Pad 36B at 0230:01Z on 5 December 1986. The launch was highly successful, and the spacecraft was injected into the proper 90 x 19,422-nautical-mile transfer orbit. Approximately 48 hours after the launch, ground controllers fired the spacecraft's AKM to circularize the FLTSATCOM's orbit and reduce its inclination to five degrees to the equator. The AKM burn was adjusted to let the FLTSATCOM F-7 "drift" into final position approximately 19,422 miles above the equator.40

The other FLTSATCOM mission involved the FLTSATCOM-F spacecraft, which was a slightly shorter version of the FLTSATCOM-G minus EHF communications. The FLTSATCOM-F spacecraft arrived at the Cape on 13 April 1986, and it was scheduled to be launched on an ATLAS G/CENTAUR in December 1986. Unfortunately, the FLTSATCOM-F went into storage after the DELTA 178 launch failure, and it was bumped in the launch schedule by the FLTSATCOM-G mission. Following the launch of the FLTSATCOM-G on December 5th, the FLTSATCOM-F's ATLAS G booster arrived at the Cape on December 9th. The booster was erected at Pad 36B on December 10th, and the CENTAUR upper stage was mated on December 11th. Power-up testing for the ATLAS G/CENTAUR began on 19 December 1986. The spacecraft was taken out of storage in early February 1987. Following testing, the satellite was transported to ESA-60 for its AKM installation and fueling operation in early March. The FLTSATCOM-F was transported to the launch pad on March 15th, and it was mated to the launch vehicle shortly thereafter. Prelaunch preparations continued, and the countdown was picked up at 1345Z on March 26th. In one of the most disappointing days in the Cape's history, the FLTSATCOM-F was launched through heavy cloud cover on 26 March 1987 only to be struck by lightning and destroyed. NASA's formal mishap investigation concluded that there was "no convincing evidence" that an important criterion-the avoidance of potential electrical hazards-was met by the launch crew. Among the investigation team's recommendations: all directives should be clarified to ensure that they are not ambiguous concerning the duties and responsibilities of launch team members (e.g., weather officers and launch directors).41

Figure 116: FLTSATCOM F launch
26 March 1987

As if the FLTSATCOM-F mission failure were not enough, an accident at Pad 36B in July 1987 pushed back the next FLTSATCOM mission indefinitely. The mission (FLTSATCOM F-8) had been scheduled for launch in July, but an oxygen leak was detected in the launch vehicle's CENTAUR interstage adapter during a Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) on 17 June 1987. Another TCDT was performed on July 12th to locate the source of the leak, and a de-mating operation was underway on 13 July 1987 to reach the source of the leak and correct it. Unfortunately, a workstand was pulled off working level 26E as one of the Mobile Service Tower's platforms was retracted from the vehicle. The falling workstand bounced off the lower platform (25E) and struck the CENTAUR's liquid hydrogen tank. The CENTAUR tank ruptured, and the upper part of the launch vehicle dropped and rotated. The CENTAUR was ruined, and it would have to be replaced. In retrospect, this costly accident could have been prevented easily, but fate dictated otherwise. The FLTSATCOM F-8 mission was delayed more than two years as a consequence. NASA planned to transfer sponsorship of the Cape's ATLAS operations to the Air Force following FLTSATCOM F-8's launch, so the accident had an impact on the timeliness of that transfer as well.42

Like the FLTSATCOM F-7 spacecraft, the FLTSATCOM F-8 carried UHF, EHF and X-Band communications equipment. The satellite was built by TRW's Defense and Space Systems Group, and it was expected to remain operational in space for ten years. Though satellites were launched toward different locations in the FLTSATCOM constellation, they were all placed in 90 x 19,422-nautical-mile transfer orbits by their launch vehicles. The orbits were circularized about two days into the mission, and the satellites were allowed to drift into position at an altitude of approximately 19,422 nautical miles. The countdown for the F-8 mission got underway at 0012Z on 25 September 1989. The countdown was normal except for a 44-minute extension for weather during the final built-in hold. Once the weather constraint lifted, the countdown resumed, and the ATLAS G/CENTAUR was launched at 0856:02Z on September 25th. The mission was successful.43

Figure 117: FLTSATCOM F-8 launch
25 September 1989

The FLTSATCOM F-8 launch was, quite literally, the end of an era at the Cape. NASA did not sponsor any more ATLAS/CENTAUR launch operations after the F-8 mission, and it soon surrendered responsibility for ATLAS/CENTAUR facilities to the Air Force. The NASA/Air Force agreement governing the transfer of ATLAS/CENTAUR program accountability was signed by Air Force Secretary Donald Rice on 29 November 1989 and countersigned by NASA Administrator Richard H. Truly on 22 January 1990. Under the terms of that agreement, Complex 36 and all dedicated ATLAS/CENTAUR facilities at the Cape were transferred to the Air Force at no cost in "as-is" condition. The Air Force assumed accountability for the operation, maintenance and configuration management of Complex 36, both its launch pads, the blockhouse and the facility's ground support equipment. Any future NASA missions launched from Complex 36 would be "accorded the same USAF program consideration as the USAF ATLAS II program," and the two agencies agreed to exchange technical and financial information on ATLAS II boosters carrying NASA payloads. On the commercial side of the house, ESMC and General Dynamics prepared a Joint Operating Procedure (JOP) in March 1990 to outline commercial launch operations responsibilities at Complex 36. Under the JOP, the 6555th Aerospace Test Group's people monitored testing and troubleshooting on both launch pads, but General Dynamics was responsible for fabricating, testing, launching and supporting the Commercial ATLAS launch vehicle. In essence, the company ran its own commercial operation on Pad 36B with safety supervision by Air Force officials. Understandably, the Air Force focused greater attention on Pad 36A because military space missions would be launched from that pad. In practice, the "A" launch pad was for "Air Force" missions and the "B" launch pad was for "business" launch operations.44

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