LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE -- It’s a balmy 88 degrees on a Tuesday night at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mosquitoes are abuzz and if you’re outside standing next to the water, as much of the cape is surrounded by water, you can feel a light film of sweat form on your skin from the humidity in the area. There’s a mild breeze that’s making the weather outside a little bearable and one barely visible cloud in the sky.
It’s approximately 11 p.m. on Oct. 16, and while most Americans are safely tucked in their beds or enjoying a late-night outing, the hustle and bustle inside the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) is already ramping up. That’s because, the U.S. Air Force, along with its industry partner, United Launch Alliance (ULA), are prepping to launch the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite into space.
A static voice comes across the speakers in the ASOC, “…we are L minus 30 minutes away from the launch of the AEHF-4 satellite on the Atlas V launch vehicle…,” alerting all the guests and attendees that are patiently waiting, of how much time is left before they see history-in-the-making. Along a narrow strip of road about half a mile from the ASOC is the designated press area. There are approximately 40 news agencies with cameras at-the-ready, to capture the moment AEHF-4 lights up the night sky. On the ASOC rooftop, a crowd is gathering, along with official photographers and videographers, setting up for that pinnacle moment AEHF-4 launches from Launch Pad 41; about four miles away. They have one opportunity to get the picture perfect shot and there are no do-overs.
“I’ve worked launches for approximately three years and each one is unique and exciting,” said Col. David Ashley, Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) AEHF Program Manager. “This one is a night launch based on the current window [sic] and depending on the clouds, you might see brightness as it goes up. With the five strap on solid rocket motors, it’s going to go up very fast and you will see the 1st stage fall off; and when it goes to the 2nd stage, you’ll start to see it disappear to the east.”
Meanwhile, dozens of operators are fixated behind command stations, analyzing and coordinating the final tests of the launch vehicle; ensuring there are no issues for the Atlas V rocket. Big screens are seen at the front of the launch command control center, displaying crucial information on the status of launch operations.
At the forefront of mission command and responsible for the integrated system of the satellite and launch vehicle is the U.S. Air Force Mission Director for the AEHF-4 launch, Michael Dolan. He is also the Executive Director for SMC’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate. He is responsible for providing the “Permission to Launch.” He ensures that the satellite and the launch vehicle, leading up to launch, are “Ready” and that all the systems are flight worthy. The rocket does not proceed to launch without a “Go” from the Mission Director.
“The experience has been fantastic! There is a wealth of responsibility that comes with being a certified U.S. Air Force Mission Director; a delegated authority from the SMC commander. It’s is an honor and a privilege to be leading the mission team with our partners from United Launch Alliance and Lockheed Martin providing critical space capabilities to the warfighter,” said Dolan.
Its eight minutes past midnight on Oct. 17, AEHF-4’s launch window opens at 12:15 a.m. The speakers come to life again and there’s another announcement, “We have a “GO” for launch of the AEHF-4 spacecraft aboard the Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).” Straggling guests and attendees all rush atop the ASOC roof and turn their heads, and cell phones, to the east to Launch Pad 41, which can be seen not too far away from where they stand.
As the countdown begins, ULA has already started the live broadcast on their website for the entire world to see and be a part of the launch mission. As the announcer counts down the final seconds to launch, cellphones wait patiently, record buttons at the ready and faces steady with anticipation to be mesmerized by what is about to happen.
On the intercom, you hear unique words spoken by the ULA commentator, “Go Atlas, Go Centaur, Go AEHF-4”, followed by the count down, “…5…4…3…2…1”
Everyone holds their breath…
And the Atlas V launch vehicle comes to life with flame and smoke jetting off the launch pad and beginning its ascent into the night’s sky carrying the AEHF-4 satellite…”
…the fiery glow envelopes the night sky in a golden haze…
…and seconds later, the rocket fans at the ASOC and along the viewing roads hears the rocket’s roaring engines giving everyone goose-bumps as it rises…
…across the plains and waterways of the cape, it reflects its majestic rise into the night sky.
The sight is awe-inspiring and the silence is deafening amongst the spectators. For the couple of minutes that AEHF-4 moves into each layer of the atmosphere, gaining exceptional momentum into space, the feeling of excitement and wonderment is felt all around.
Cheers of excitement echo in the night.
The launch was fast. After a few minutes, the rocket’s engines could no longer be seen by the naked eye. It seemed spectators were left wanting to see more; yet the impression of the overall event left a lasting mark in their memories.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never seen a launch before. I was kind of sad it went quicker than I thought it would,” said 1Lt. Vinod Dorai, Lead Acquisitions Cost Analyst, Military Satellite Communications (MILSATCOM) Systems Directorate. “It’s pretty cool to see the fruits of your labor finally. I’ve never seen a satellite launch before and to see AEHF-4 take-off, it’s awesome!”
On Oct. 17, 2018, in the wee hours of a humid Wednesday morning, the U.S. Air Force successfully launched the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency communication satellite carried to orbit aboard a ULA Atlas V 551 launch vehicle. After launch, it took approx. three hours before vehicle separation, which is when the mission was officially considered a success.
AEHF is a joint service satellite communications system which will provide survivable, global, secure, protected, and jam-resistant communications for high-priority military ground, sea, and air assets. The terminal segment includes fixed and ground mobile terminals, ship and submarine terminals, and airborne terminals used by all of the Services and international partners (Canada, Netherlands, and UK). The AEHF system is the follow-on to the Milstar system, augmenting, improving and expanding the Department of Defense's MILSATCOM architecture.
“Today was a very smooth launch – a testament to the hard work by all. The weather was fantastic, we had a clean rocket, good winds, and the space vehicle preps for launch were flawless; everything came together and everyone worked as a team culminating in a successful and beautiful midnight launch,” said Dolan.
For more information on the AEHF Program, send an email to email@example.com.