First Official Launch for New U.S. Space Force Happens in Florida

The Atlas V rocket that launched the AEHF-5 satellite rolled out to the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo: United Launch Alliance (ULA)

On Thursday, March 26 at 4:18 p.m the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket took off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the sixth and final Lockheed Martin-built Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellite. There was a launch delay due to a hydraulic issue. The mission took off late in a planned two-hour launch (original launch time 2:57 p.m EDT) as a result. 

This is the first launch for the new branch of Space Force, the Space and Missiles Systems Center. 

The rocket will carry the sixth in a series of next-generation satellites which will provide better communication to troops from the United States, Canada, Holland and the United Kingdom. 

An Atlas V rocket undergoes final preparations for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The rocket is carrying a military communications satellite. Photo: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK  

A ceremony to rename the 45th Space Wing’s two bases with the Space Force convention has since been postponed to a later date due to the coronavirus outbreak. The installations will remain at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the time being.

SpaceX, for example, has already indefinitely delayed its next mission, which was slated to become the first polar-orbiting satellite launched from the Cape in 60 years. The Argentinian spacecraft has been grounded until further notice due to travel and resource restrictions caused by the coronavirus.

“We’ve prepared to continue mission-essential operations up at the Cape for launch operations,” 45th Space Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess said Tuesday.

Beyond that, it remains to be seen when the Space Coast will host its next launch. SpaceX was targeting sometime in April for its next launch of 60 Starlink satellites, but a target date has not yet been officially confirmed.

For Thursday’s launch, the 197-foot-tall Atlas V rocket was set to its most powerful configuration with five strap-on solid rocket boosters.

The Atlas V rocket launch is part of the $15 billion AEHF program. The rockets have been launched by the spacecraft on ULA rockets since 2010. The advanced satellites have three-times better accuracy and eight-times improved anti-jamming capabilities. The satellites will be part of the new constellation that will replace the current MILSTAR satellites in orbit since the early 2000s. 

The mission also carried a new blue logo of the newly-formed U.S. Space Force on the payload on top of the Atlas V rocket.

The military satellite launched despite growing coronavirus concerns affecting operations in the base. It would be the first launch under Florida’s restrictions against public gatherings due to COVID-19. Personnel was required to work from home, and the public and all media were banned by the military from attending the launch.

Schless said the Space Force is taking every possible precaution during the pandemic. Space Force connected civilians and military personnel have been encouraged to work from home as much as possible. Schless said avoiding exposure to the virus is key. No new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at Patrick Air Force Base nor at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The general of the 45th Space Wing said he feels confident in the number of testing kits available. He also confirmed that several people have already been tested based on their symptoms, but so far all tests have come back negative.