The Space Force is short on spare components for many of the equipment required to enable launches from both the Western and Eastern Ranges, a problem that could become more serious if the number of launches from both spaceports grows.
The Eastern Range which is at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station facility in Florida and the Western Range at the Vandenberg Space Force Base facility in California, according to a report published by the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Inspector General on January 7, continue to depend on older equipment to support launches, forcing the service to shift to marketplaces like eBay for spare parts in some cases.
The investigation discovered that 28 percent of the range devices needed to assist launches, including radars, antennae, and command destruct systems, lacked replacement parts because they were antiquated. This contains equipment that is no longer manufactured, as well as equipment from firms that are no longer in business.
A telemetry antenna that is on the Western Range, for example, was first operational in 1967, according to the report. Because the manufacturer had gone out of business, the service did not have any spares for it. The average age of range components with a potential mission effect and no available spares, as per the Space Force, was over 30 years old, according to the report.
“Multiple individuals accountable for range item maintenance claimed that they sometimes sought for spare parts for certain components from resale websites, such as eBay,” according to the investigation.
In recent years, range maintenance has not been a serious issue for deployments at either range. Except for a wildfire at the Vandenberg facility in 2016 that destroyed communications connections and delayed a launch, the research found no occurrences of range difficulties between January 2016 to March 2021 that resulted in a launch scrub.
However, the inspector general’s report warned that a predicted rise in launch activity raises the risk of “aging range items with outmoded components limiting launch capability” on the ranges. According to a Space Force prediction included in the paper, the number of deployments on the Eastern Range will climb from 57 in the year 2022 to 119 in the year 2027, with commercial activity accounting for nearly all of the increase. Because of commercial activity, the Western Range is expected to see an increase in launches from 23 in 2022 to 38 in 2027.
The use of autonomous flight safety systems (AFSS) on the launch vehicles in place of the conventional range safety systems, capable of terminating a launch if a malfunction threatens safety, is one way to lessen that risk. A recent deployment of a vehicle without the AFSS needed 29 range items to be able to support, whereas one with an AFSS only required six, according to Space Launch Delta 45, that operates the Eastern Range. By October 2025, the Space Force will require all vehicles deploying from the ranges to utilize an AFSS.