HomeNewsArticle Display

Air Force Achieves Firsts With Atlas V Launch

Six satellites were launched into orbit on board a single Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle March 8. This marks the 50th consecutive successful launch by the Air Force since May 1999. (United Launch Alliance photo/Pat Cokery)

Six satellites were launched into orbit on board a single Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle March 8. This marks the 50th consecutive successful launch by the Air Force since May 1999. (United Launch Alliance photo/Pat Cokery)

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FLORIDA -- The first Atlas V rocket used by the Air Force successfully launched six experimental satellites for the Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW) STP-1 mission Thursday evening at 10:10 p.m. EST. A number of other Air Force Space Command organizations, including the Launch and Range Systems Wing at Los Angeles AFB, CA and the 45th Space Wing at Patrick AFB, FL were integral partners in the success of the launch.

"Last Thursday's STP-1 launch was the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication. Everyone involved both here at Kirtland and at Cape Canaveral, performed flawlessly and ensured a successful launch. I couldn't be more proud," said Lt Col Carol Welsch, Director of the Space Development Group, which manages the DoD Space Test Program.

The mission, named STP-1 for the first Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission for STP, carried with it many firsts. In addition to the first-ever Atlas V for the Air Force and first EELV launch for STP, this was the Air Force's first launch of six unique satellites, the first Atlas V mission to two different orbits, and the first EELV dedicated to launching only research payloads.

The six spacecraft represent a wide variety of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations from across the DoD, including the Air Force, Navy, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as the Department of Energy.

DARPA's Orbital Express was the largest payload, weighing in at 2,900 pounds. Orbital Express consists of two spacecraft that will test the ability to robotically refuel and service satellites already on orbit.

Four smaller satellites, each about the size of a washing machine, were launched on the Atlas V. STPSat-1 was developed by the Space Development and Test Wing to fly two Naval Research Lab experiments. These experiments will study upper atmosphere and space weather events that can cause outages in satellite communications and navigation. The Cibola Flight Experiment (CFE) was built by Los Alamos National Labs to demonstrate new technologies, including a supercomputer that can be reprogrammed in space. FalconSat-3 was built entirely by cadets at the Air Force Academy, and will conduct experiments from the Academy as well as the Air Force Research Lab. MidStar-1 was built by Midshipmen and carries a variety of experiments for the Naval Academy, Naval Postgraduate School, and NASA.

Both Orbital Express and STPSat-1 are being operated from the Space Development and Test Wing's own satellite operations center at Kirtland AFB. "We're excited about the successful launch of STP-1, but the mission is just ramping up here at Kirtland," said Col Kevin McLaughlin, Commander of the Space Development and Test Wing. "STP-1 is the first time we have simultaneously commanded three unique spacecraft on the same mission. Our young space professional officers are doing a phenomenal job keeping this complex mission running smoothly."

CFE, FalconSat-3, and MidStar-1 will all be operated by the same people who built them, including Los Alamos, the cadets of the Air Force Academy, and the Midshipmen at the Naval Academy.

The four smaller satellites were attached to the rocket using the EELV Secondary Payload Adapter ring, or ESPA. STP-1 was the first use of ESPA, which was developed by the Air Force Research Lab to make use of extra space on EELV launches. The ESPA concept was proven on STP-1 when all four spacecraft successfully separated from the ring into their intended orbits. "The separation systems on the ESPA ring worked flawlessly allowing the satellites to deploy as we expected. I don't believe the flight to the designated mission orbits could have gone any better than it did," said Lt Col Welsch.

The mission also comes at a very historic time. This year is not only the 60th anniversary of the Air Force, but marks 40 years since the first DoD Space Test Program launch, and the 25th year of Air Force Space Command. STP-1 was also the 50th consecutive successful launch by the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force's center of acquisition excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems.

"The STP-1 mission is the most complicated launch ever attempted by STP," Lt Col Welsch told the media the day before the launch. "The capabilities demonstrated by the Space Development & Test Wing on STP-1 will help usher in a new era of responsive space capabilities."

No one was more excited on Thursday night than Maj David Rodriguez, STP-1 Program Manager for the past two years. "After all the long hours this team has put in to make the mission a success, it was an amazing feeling to see the rocket lift off the pad and to hear confirmation that all the satellites had successfully reached their intended orbits," Maj Rodriguez said.

Everyone at SDTW is ecstatic about the success of STP-1, but there's still a lot of work going on. "The rest of the DoD is recognizing that the men and women of the Space Development & Test Wing are experts at developing, launching, and operating small satellites," said Col McLaughlin. "We've got a lot of work to do preparing for our upcoming missions and look forward to providing responsive space capabilities to the warfighter."


The first Air Force Atlas V rocket carrying six experimental satellites for the Space Development and Test Wing STP-1 mission lifts off Thursday night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Photo credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance