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NOV. 20, 2020–Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich is almost twelve hours away from launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base at Launch Complex 4-East. If “launching from Vandenberg” isn’t a phrase you’ve heard lately – we don’t blame you, as it’s been a staggering 527 days since Vandenberg last had a fully orbital launch, which was the RADARSAT Constellation Mission on June 12, 2019. Nevertheless, the launch is scheduled for 9:17 a.m. PT on November 21, and weather conditions are currently at 80% GO.
There’s quite a few reasons to blame for why Vandenberg has been, with the exception of ICBM tests, dead silent. For example, Falcon 9 has now achieved certification for flying through the “polar corridor” at Cape Canaveral, a route that opens up polar orbits that haven’t been accessible outside of Vandenberg for six decades. To add salt to the wound for any west-coast launch viewers, SpaceX demonstrated this route with the SAOCOM-1B launch, a flight that was originally scheduled to take place from Vandenberg.
Second, demand for polar orbits is all-around at a low right now. The U.S. government, one of the main customers for polar and retrograde orbits only Vandenberg can offer, is currently transitioning to a new generation of launch vehicles under the NSSL (or National Security Space Launch) contracts – with ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur and SpaceX’s vertically-integrated Falcon Heavy replacing older launch vehicles such as Delta IV and Atlas V. NSSL will take a few years to pick up its pace, and we’re still seeing some missions from the previous round, known as EELV (or Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) contracts that have yet to be completed. One of these EELV missions – NROL-82, will be flying from Vandenberg in December, assuming its aging yet monstrous Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle won’t be plagued by the same issues other recent Heavy-based missions, such as 2019’s NROL-71 and the currently grounded NROL-44, are facing.
Third, Vandenberg itself is in a sort of transition and restructuring period of its own right now. Space Launch Complex 2-West, which historically has been used for Delta (and its predecessor Thor) launches since 1959, is now being rebuilt to support startup Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket after the retiring of the Delta II in 2018. Space Launch Complex 3-East is also undergoing upgrades in order to support simultaneous Atlas V and Vulcan operations. Finally, the base itself has been undergoing some minor restructuring due to being moved to the U.S. Space Force (albeit not formally renamed yet).
A long break like this is absolutely far from ideal for a once-bustling spaceport like Vandenberg. As many have seen over at Cape Canaveral with the NROL-44 campaign, when launchpads go unused for years, they degrade, and launch schedule reliability quickly worsens. The inverse of this is also why almost no SpaceX launches ever get delayed at the Cape these days, as the launchpads are kept in top condition due to the ever-faster launch cadence.
Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich signals a possible full return to flight for Vandenberg, with three more launches – one of which is the debut of a rebuilt pad and new rocket – scheduled for the coming months. However, it is all too possible that these dates keep slipping into the future as Vandenberg launch dates always seem to do. Either way, we can all agree something is much better than nothing, so for now, Go NASA, Go SpaceX, and Go Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich!