Highway to space

A team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a test reentry vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Oct. 21, 2015. The ICBM's reentry vehicle, which contained a telemetry package used for operational testing, traveled approximately 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Test launches verify the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley)

A team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a test reentry vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Oct. 21, 2015. Every launch presents a new set of challenges, but no matter what is being launched from Vandenberg, the 2nd Range Operations Squadron ensures that the range is closely monitored and public safety is maintained. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Every launch presents a new set of challenges that require months of preparation to overcome.

The 2nd Range Operations Squadron ensures that every mission has been fully vetted and the 'highway to space' they maintain is clear and ready to go.

"The big picture for the 30th Space Wing is to provide assured access to space," said 2nd Lt. Ryan Yeager, 2 ROPS range operations commander. "For Air Force Space Command, we are one of the two major range test facilities. They are East coast and West coast; Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. AFSPC needs access to space, and we as the operational squadron within the 30th Space Wing execute that mission. Secondarily, we conduct validity and testing of our nuclear arsenal and our interceptor arsenal. The overall picture though, is that we make sure we have access to space."

A two-minute light streak across the sky and a loud roar are the only things that a majority of people see and hear from the months of preparation that goes into each launch. Whether it is a Minuteman III ballistic missile test or a launch from SpaceX, each is an exercise in flexibility.

"There is a certain degree of flexibility involved in our jobs," said 1st Lt. Stephen Houk, 2 ROPS chief of operations training. "We work with The United Launch Alliance a lot and they do things differently than SpaceX or the 576th Flight Test Squadron. We have to be flexible with the customer and at the same time meet the requirements that we have, flexing where we can."

The stringent requirements are maintained by having several teams devoted to each launch.

"We are certified in our position to work on any of those missions," said Yeager. "However, each launch campaign has a generation phase that takes months and months of preparation to understand what the requirements are for that mission."

With five launches scheduled over the next two months and four different entities utilizing the range, 2 ROPS has their work cut out for them.

"Every mission produces its own unique challenges, and within each mission-set each launch is different," said Yeager. "We have our major players on the range; the 576th Flight Test Squadron for the Minuteman, United Launch Alliance with their Atlas and Delta missions, and now we have SpaceX. Another unique aspect is the X-37 which lands here. Each one of those mission areas provides a learning curve for each operator."

Despite the months of preparation and the intense schedule, one thing remains constant - public safety.

"The main reason we are here is for public safety," said Yeager. "That is what we do at the operations group. The Launch Group does mission assurance. They are more concerned with whether the vehicle did what it was supposed to do; did the satellite do what it's supposed to do? But we are here for public safety and whether the instrumentation we have supports that role. Any vehicle leaving from our range has to provide less risk than a commercial flight overhead. That is the safety threshold that we as a range test facility utilize."

The range at Vandenberg doesn't control the launch of vehicles - that is the responsibility of the contractor. 2 ROPS gathers data from multiple sources, processes it, and then gives a recommendation to the commander on whether or not the launch should proceed.

"Educating leadership is one of the challenges that we have as range operation commanders," said Yeager. "We have to provide the people above us the relevant information. We are in essence a funnel of information. We break down the information and pass along what is relevant for commanders to make a decision."

With months of preparation behind the scenes and long days, 2 ROPS maintains their course for public safety, even if they don't get to launch the rocket.

"There is no button to push that launches the rocket," said Houk. "Every time I talk to my family they always ask if I will get to push the button. Our job is safety and making sure that we have gathered all the correct information and the constraints are being met."