Space Coast could see more than 30 launches in 2017

23 launches were supported last year

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Image courtesy of Florida Today.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The Space Coast could see as many as 32 launches by five different rockets in 2017, the vice commander of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing said Tuesday.

That would easily surpass the 23 launch operations supported in 2016, the Eastern Range's busiest year in two decades, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

“Just a tremendous year,” said Col. Walt Jackim, in a “State of the Wing” presentation to the National Space Club Florida Committee in Cape Canaveral. “It’s only going to get busier for us.”

United Launch Alliance is expected to kick off the 2017 campaign with an Atlas V launch next Thursday night, Jan. 19. It's the first of at least seven launches ULA plans from Florida, including six on the Atlas V and one by a Delta IV.

Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV rocket is expected to make a mid-year visit for an Air Force mission, reviving long-dormant Launch Complex 46.

Most of the remainder counts on a banner year from SpaceX, which hopes to resume Falcon 9 launches this month and to debut the long-awaited Falcon Heavy, which will become the world's most powerful rocket.

Those flights will attempt to land the Falcon 9 boosters at sea or, in some cases, on pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX likely will have two Cape launch pads available for at least part of the year.

The company could make its first flight from historic pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center as soon as Jan. 26, and plans to repair Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which was severely damaged when a Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad during a Sept. 1 test.

The explosion limited the number of local launches last year, which also had been projected to exceed 30. SpaceX ended up with eight, its most yet in a calendar year.

Launch totals often fall short of projections at the start of the year, as technical issues arise with rockets or spacecraft, or weather events like Hurricane Matthew disrupt plans.

The schedule Jackim presented on Tuesday included a NASA science mission that the agency on the same day confirmed would be delayed to 2018.

The public schedule does not include classified tests of submarine-launched Trident II D5 ballistic missiles, of which there were five last year.

But all indications point to a growing number of launches from Florida over the next five years, as the Cape welcomes newcomers like Blue Origin.

The private firm founded by billionaire Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos hopes to launch an orbital New Glenn rocket before the end of the decade.

The company is building a huge rocket factory at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park, and recently began work at its future launch site, Launch Complex 36 on the Air Force Station.

Several more companies are developing rockets that eventually could make their way to Space Coast pads or runways. Examples include Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch Systems and Virgin Galactic.

“It is really busy down here,” said Jackim. “And I’m not so sure that the rest of the space community has caught on to that yet.”

Jackim said the Air Force is transforming the Range to be ready to support up to 48 launches annually by 2021.

“We think that that might even be short of what we’re going to need when we start to get weekly launches out of here, and maybe even bi-weekly as we start to get human spaceflight back into the launch calendar,” he said.

Prior to Jackim’s talk, the space club presented its 2017 Forrest S. McCartney National Defense Space Award to Capt. Joseph Dechert, a flight mission lead for the 5th Space Launch Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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