Space mission support: Coast Guard patrols Restricted areas around launches, re-entries

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NASA, Department of Defense and commercial space launch sites are located next to the ocean. In addition to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral in Florida, NASA and the Air Force also use Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, on the West Coast. NASA also conducts launches from its Wallops Island facility near Chincoteague, Virginia, and SpaceX has developed a commercial launch facility at Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. The Navy has the ability to launch targets from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai, but these are not orbital missions. Other space ports are planned. “We’ve been a mission supporter since 1955,” said Cmdr. Jill Lamb, chief of response for Sector Jacksonville, Florida.

When the space shuttle program shut down, major missions departing from the U.S. also wound down. That’s changed, however. The volume of space missions is growing as companies provide more opportunities to launch payloads, and space tourism is becoming a thing. Business is booming. According to Chief Warrant Officer John Chandler, Station Port Canaveral’s commanding officer, the highest risk during a launch is typically within the first minute or minute and a half, depending on launch vehicle, configuration, and other factors. In some cases, flight abort tests intentionally come down shortly after launch.

Lamb said the captain of the port (COTP) promulgates a notice to mariners and local notice to mariners to set forth those limited access safety areas. In the case of the KSC launches, the COTP is the sector commander at Jacksonville, assisted by the commanding officer of Station Port Canaveral. On the day of the launch, the warnings are broadcast on marine radio channels. The restricted areas are created to keep unwary boaters or gawkers from being under an area where debris or hazardous materials might fall during a launch. The Coast Guard provides security for landing zones when astronauts return to Earth in the Pacific or Gulf of Mexico. This 2017 test demonstrates how they will safely egress the spacecraft. NASA / Josh Valcarel

The Coast Guard has a memorandum of agreement with the Space Force’s 45th Space Wing. During major evolutions at the space center, the 45th, working with NASA and the commercial providers, will publish the limited access safety zone and establish a command center where the Coast Guard will participate. On launch day, the Coast Guard will monitor and patrol that zone. “We use a local risk assessment tool for each launch,” said Lamb. “It’s scalable, so we can look at all the factors and adjust our force laydown. It might vary, depending on if were dealing with a satellite launch or an astronaut launch.”

Usually, the mere act of informing the boaters to clear out is enough. “As the local unit, we always maintain a standby SAR [search and rescue] posture,” Chandler said. “During those launches that are deemed high risk, or when we receive a request from the 45th for surveillance assets, our vessels would patrol within the launch danger area, ensuring vessel masters are aware of the hazardous areas and CG enforceable limited access areas [LAAs]. Our job with the USSF day of launch is to provide CG authority in the event a boater is causing the overall risk analysis to increase, which can affect proceeding to launch, hold or scrub.”

“We interact with Canaveral Port Authority, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, and Florida Fish and Wildlife,” Chandler said. “Our launch partnerships include Space Force, Air Force, NASA, FAA, as well as the launch providers themselves, such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Boeing and Orbital ATK.” “No one really wants to place their vessels in any unwarranted danger. But, if our crews encounter vessels within the LAAs, we are authorized by the COTP to provide notification of violation and initiate additional enforcement documentation if necessary. Thus, for those masters who are less than cooperative, we make sure they understand that these areas are under Coast Guard authority and civil and criminal penalties can be applied.” While space launches were traditionally a NASA show, today’s launch activities are increasing commercial operations.

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