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Not a launch since June 2019, why is Vandenberg so quiet?

Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg – once prepared to launch Shuttles, now perfectly still since the launch of NROL-71 in January of 2019.

EDIT: 7:52 a.m. 4.27.2020: A correction was made on Atlas V and Delta IV where the article previously stated that they did not have automatic FTS systems. Thank you to @NorthernAerona1 for the correction!

APR. 26, 2020–Vandenberg has been in… quite a lull.

The California launch site has been quiet for almost a year, and appears as if it will be quiet for much longer. 2019 only had two launches (RADARSAT Constellation Mission and NROL-71), and the current scheduled launches are pushed back further and further. Why?

There are a couple of reasons. First of all, the polar corridor at the Cape is opening up. Now that vehicles have Automatic Flight Termination systems (AFTS for short), they can fly over relatively populated land safely. This does not mean continental land, but more like islands. Falcon 9, Atlas V, and Delta IV all have AFTS systems, and ATK has been working on one since 2012, but Falcon 9 gets the upper edge with risky missions like this as it is able to precisely land (or intentionally crash) at a certain spot. Many small vehicles do not employ one, but Rocket Lab added one to their “Electron” rockets in December of 2019.

The use of an AFTS is critical compared to a normal human-in-the-loop FTS for such polar missions as the “destruct” signals may not reach the launch vehicle through the plume in a polar launch from the Cape. These polar launches have been allowed since the Eastern Range relaxed their standards for AFTS vehicles in 2018.

Another reason for the lull in Vandenberg launches is a simple lack of demand in polar launches. Vandenberg has been suffering this in the past few decades, and as supply and demand ebbs and flows, the launch cadence at Vandenberg will too. We saw this especially with the Iridium constellation being launched, which relative to now, provided a very rapid cadence for Vandenberg. Such a mission may now be launched from the Cape, considering the polar corridor.

Finally, we are currently in a phase of research and development. The new Vulcan launch vehicle is coming online in 2021, Firefly Alpha will be coming online this year at Vandenberg, Rocket Lab is coming to the U.S. this year, and Astra is taking up shop at Kodiak. Those of us on the West Coast will see more launches.

It just might take a bit of a wait.

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