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Booster Backlog Slows Cape Launch Rate

Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., with the a Delta 4 positioned for launch. Credit: Boeing photo

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. — The 45th Space Wing here, which oversees the nation’s busiest rocket launching range, is preparing for 16 launches this year — not including classified flights the military won’t discuss.

That’s six more Atlas, Delta and Falcon rockets flying from the Cape than what were launched in 2012, but still not near the range’s capacity, said Tony Cotton, the brigadier general who oversees the wing and directs the Eastern Range, based at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

“The way we are currently configured as far as manpower, we can probably handle around 25 missions per year. If we get any more than that, that’s when we go back to headquarters and talk about manpower and changing structure,” Cotton told SpaceNews.

The 2013 launch manifest includes six United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launches, two of which are for NASA spacecraft, and three Delta 4 military missions. In addition, six Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon missions are on the calendar, three of which will carry Dragon cargo capsules to the international space station for NASA and three rockets to put satellites in orbit for commercial customers.

Cotton would like to see more commercial missions at the Cape and is working to dispel what he believes are misconceptions that it is difficult to do business on a military range.

“I don’t know that I can cite when we had ever put a national system (ahead) and trumped a commercial customer that was on our manifest even though I hear people talk about that all the time,” Cotton told reporters at a Jan. 8 media briefing.

What’s really keeping the launch rate in check is a shortage of boosters, he added.

“The biggest challenge that we have with the throughput of launches at Cape Canaveral is the availability of the rockets to put the satellites on to launch,” said 45th Launch Group Commander Matthew Skeen.

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