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Despite coronavirus, Space Force prepping for back-to-back rocket launches

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the AEHF-6 mission for the U.S. Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Center rolls to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 25, 2020. (United Launch Alliance/TNS)

The commander of the Space Force’s local wing says his teams are ready for this weekend’s back-to-back rocket launches, possibly breaking a decades-old mission cadence record despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

45th Space Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess said Tuesday he expects about 300 people – military and civilian – to support Saturday’s launch of an Air Force X-37B spaceplane from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 41. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will take the 29-foot-long secretive spacecraft to orbit sometime between 6:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., though an exact time has not been released due to security reasons.

If X-37B flies as planned, the Space Force will turn around and support a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch with 60 Starlink internet satellites from Launch Complex 40 less than a day later.

“That would be about 20 hours, which would break our record of last August of 34 hours,” Schiess said of the mission slated to fly around 4 a.m. Sunday. “That hasn’t been broken in about 30 years.”

About 200 people, including firefighters, security, and launch support, would be on-hand for Starlink’s eighth mission. Schiess said the difference in 100 or so staff between Atlas V and Falcon 9 is due to the latter’s use of the Autonomous Flight Safety System, or AFSS, which can automatically destroy Falcon 9 rockets in the event of emergencies. Atlas V rockets require more staff in the loop because they use flight termination systems, or FTS, which require human input.

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The tight scheduling of the two launches doesn’t mean the 45th is entirely back to normal, however, as Schiess said his teams are still expected to follow coronavirus-related guidelines. Some base amenities are back online, but when it comes to launch support, one of the new rules includes masks.

“We are all wearing face coverings anytime you enter into a building at Patrick Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” he said. “I worked a SpaceX launch just recently and we wore space coverings the whole time.”

In some operations centers, Schiess said, personnel are taking temperatures before staff begin working at consoles. In total, 11 people connected to the bases have tested positive for COVID-19, though none of those include active duty military members.

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Outside the gates of the Space Force’s two local bases, however, things are more complicated for locals and visitors. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has urged spectators to stay at home for the upcoming May 27 launch of astronauts on a Falcon 9 rocket, while Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey encouraged visitors to come as long as they followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Schiess didn’t immediately recommend that people stay at home, but did say NASA and SpaceX will be providing comprehensive live streams. In the past, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has issued passes to people with access for launch viewing opportunities, but that will not be an option for the May 27 flight, known as Demo-2.

“I think we’re going to do a great job of providing streaming opportunities for everyone to see that,” he said. “We tell everyone here to do the right thing, which is to keep yourself physically distanced from others, wear a face covering when possible, and use good hygiene.”

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“I would tell the public that we’re going to have great opportunities for them to watch this in a streaming capacity,” he said.

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© 2020 The Florida Times-Union