Story updated May 30, 2020: NASA and SpaceX successfully launched the Demo-2 mission today, sending the Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (watch above). Below is the story our local tracking station that supported the launch.
NEW BOSTON, NH – When two NASA astronauts venture to the International Space Station this week, in the first human rocket launch from the United States in nine years, humans in a New Hampshire military unit will track part of their flight.
Astronauts going to and from the International Space Station have done so in Russian Soyuz spacecraft since 2011, when the Space Shuttle ended operations. NASA set up the Commercial Crew program to create industry-owned spacecraft, with SpaceX and Boeing as the current contractors. Now, after years of effort, the first human launch is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. Wednesday (May 27) although it could be postponed for unacceptable weather conditions. The backup date is May 30. If the launch is successful, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be seated inside a SpaceX Dragon capsule, riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on a northeastern trajectory up the East Coast.
That’s where the 23rd Space Operations Squadron, located at the New Boston Air Force Station, comes in. One of the services the 23rd SOPS provides is tracking rockets in our area heading to space. That includes this launch.
“We have a role pulling telemetry,” said Maj. Jeffrey Rivenbark, the squadron’s director of operations. The tracking is line-of-sight from horizon to horizon, he explained. “You only contact what you can see.”
Here’s how it works: Depending on the trajectory, different ground stations may be involved in tracking the rocket. Rockets that launch to the northeast are picked up by 23rd SOPS as the rocket proceeds up the coast. It is not uncommon to hear on the flight control audio, “A-O-S New Hampshire.” That translates to Acquisition of Signal, New Hampshire, meaning the antennas at the 23rd SOPS have received the transponder signal from the rocket. When the rocket later departs the 23rd’s control zone after a few minutes, the signal is lost and you may hear “L-O-S New Hampshire.”
From New Boston, the tracking telemetry is relayed in real-time to wherever it is supposed to go, in this case to SpaceX and NASA, which are jointly running the mission, called Demo-2, under NASA’s Commercial Crew program.
The functions are handled by real people, not just computers, Rivenbark said. “Here at New Boston, we are not really automated…the guys out here do an amazing job,” he said. Even under the current pandemic, Rivenbark noted, personnel still report to work, although the base has made accommodations to protect everyone’s health, he said.
“We’ve done things to mitigate [the risk of COVID-19]…these guys have so much pride in their work. There is always going to be risk, but we have done things to mitigate the risk,” Rivenbark said.
A lot has changed since the original unit that became 23rd SOPS was created at Grenier Field (now Manchester-Boston Regional Airport) in 1942. Today, several Air Force units (now transitioning to the new Space Force) routinely provide safety and tracking services to various civilian and commercial launch services as well as to NASA and the Department of Defense. For example, all launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center use the Eastern Range controlled by the 45th Space Wing. A similar body is the 50th Space Wing, based in Colorado, whose 50th Network Operations Group is the parent of New Hampshire’s 23rd SOPS and several other units.
“SpaceX has made space a very busy place,” Rivenbark said. 23rd SOPS has supported several of SpaceX’s earlier cargo flights to the space station, he said, as well as the company’s Starlink series of telecommunications satellites, the next one scheduled to launch not long after the Demo-2 mission.
The 23rd SOPS also tracks satellites and spacecraft already in orbit, and may command a satellite and upload and download data, according to the unit’s current mission statement on its website. Since 1991, it provides “satellite command and control capability to more than 190 Department of Defense, national and civilian satellites performing intelligence, weather, navigation, early-warning and communications operations.
But the Demo-2 mission is special, Rivenbark said. “This is the first manned launch from American soil since 2011…this is literally the next page of history.”
WMUR will broadcast the live event, currently scheduled for May 27 at 4:33 p.m.