Fast Five: Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy

U.S. Space Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy
U.S. Space Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The commander of Space Launch Delta 45 and director of the Eastern Range at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, spoke with Executive Editor Jen DiMascio on a Wings Club webinar about his role leading U.S. government and commercial launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and how that is changing. Excerpts follow.

  • Can the U.S. create space launch corridors?
  • New integrated data displays are coming online

AW&ST: In the last year, NASA began launching crewed flights again, a development that comes as the pace of launches is picking up. What are the special considerations that you deal with on a crewed launch? Each launch starts at a basic level. And then you add on mission assurance, analysis based on the importance of the risk factor of the vehicle, the launch vehicle of the satellite or the payload. Crewed flight is sort of the ultimate.

When NASA launches a crewed spaceflight, we have an entire detachment dedicated toward potential astronaut rescue. If they had to abort, for example, and the capsule jettisons off, we have different folks scattered around the world situated to go pick those individuals up.

There are a lot of other additional protections that occur because of the importance of crewed launch. It is critically important. We lost our capability to launch U.S.-based crew when the space shuttle was retired. So there has been a lot of desire and work put into being able to relaunch crew from American soil. We were to start that last year, and it’s even seen in the public.

When we have crewed launches, we have thousands of people on the beaches and on the streets wanting to see the launch. It becomes a ground game on the NASA side and the Cape Canaveral side, to manage the flow of traffic from folks who come to visit.

How has safety management changed, as public-private models have evolved and innovation has accelerated?  The biggest change has been the development of the concept of transitioning from a human-in-the-loop termination system to an automated system. That’s been a major effort—a mandate for all commercial and government launches on the ranges to move to that automated system so that we can offload all of that old equipment. Safety itself isn’t compromised.

One of your goals is to prepare for two launches in 24 hr. What does that look like on the back end?  I think we’ve done maybe 16 or so in the last few years. We’re really excited when you get the opportunity to launch two in 24 hr. or three in 48 hr.

In an airport, you’ve got big heavy jets that come in, right? But you’ve also got commuter lines that are just going into smaller airports. And you’ve got a little two-seater Cessna, and the airport supports all of them. So, much like that.

Behind the scenes we have to adjust the radars, adjust the telemetry. We’re continuing to work on that by trying to automate it as much as possible and looking for other opportunities.

What is the Space Force’s plan for the range of the future?  The range of the future isn’t a deliverable item, like an F-15 jet. It’s a collection of concepts and ideas. Some of them are legal changes, some are policy changes and some of them are processes. We’ve been able to accelerate some of the technology changes by up to two years. A few weeks ago, I sat as the launch decision authority on my older system, with my older audio and with no real video feeds. My vice sat right next to me, operating a shadow activity. He was running our in-house development software and hardware that had integrated data flowing into it. It had integrated video feeds, integrated feeds from our counter UAS [unmanned aircraft] systems, it had all sorts of interesting data. And that’s just the beginning.

What’s the most challenging aspect?  We’ve gotten the low-hanging fruit. Now it’s getting harder and harder. One that is going to require pain and difficulty is with [international aviation authorities.] Right now, the direction is you need 10 days to file to do a launch to have international airlines and the FAA block out a certain portion of the air domain. That’s for very good reasons, but that’s really a big limiter if we want to launch rapidly. That’s going to require a lot of technical discussion, treaty discussions, etc.

If you go back to the airport model, we don’t go coordinate every time an airplane takes off. There are dedicated lanes of traffic and the airport controls that, and then they hand off to regional FAA. Can we do that for space somehow? In a perfect world, I keep wondering, can we figure out a way to do space corridors and allow for us to control that and keep air traffic out of those corridors?

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.