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New Mission, Rocket for Air Force Launch Program

The U.S. Air Force's Launch Systems Division Launch Operations Team stand beside the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V.  From left to right are Mr. Keith Witt (AeroThermo Technology Inc.); Mr. John Wee (TASC); Lt. Col. Jeff Wiemeri, SDL Chief of Launch Operations;  Capt. Mike Moen, SDL Minotaur V Mission Manager; 1st Lt. Justin Oryschak, SDL Deputy Mission Manager and Mr. Paul Carman (TASC). (US Air Force photo)

The U.S. Air Force's Launch Systems Division Launch Operations Team stand beside the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V. From left to right are Mr. Keith Witt (AeroThermo Technology Inc.); Mr. John Wee (TASC); Lt. Col. Jeff Wiemeri, SDL Chief of Launch Operations; Capt. Mike Moen, SDL Minotaur V Mission Manager; 1st Lt. Justin Oryschak, SDL Deputy Mission Manager and Mr. Paul Carman (TASC). (US Air Force photo)

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif. -- After completing 60 pages of checklists, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer space vehicle was a go for launch on the night of Sept. 6. As the countdown reached zero, the five-stage Minotaur V rocket ignited providing millions of people on the east coast a spectacular view of the converted Peacekeeper rocket's blazing thrust as it arched into the night sky beginning its month-long journey to the moon.

Under the leadership of mission managers Capt. Mike Moen and 1st Lt. Justin Oryschak, the Minotaur V team executed a perfect launch. NASA was going back to the moon, this time to study a phenomenon, first observed by the Apollo astronauts, where lunar dust seemed to vault electrostatically from the surface whenever the sun's illumination (the solar terminator) passed from light to dark. However, for the Space and Missile Systems Center's Launch Systems Division at Kirtland AFB,N.M.,  the journey for the Minotaur V launch began four years earlier.

From its onset, the LADEE mission was designed to be low-cost. SMC's Rocket systems Launch Program (RSLP) provided a retired Peacekeeper which comprises the first three stages of the Minotaur V to launch the NASA payload. SMC contracted with Orbital Sciences Corporation to modify the peacekeeper motors and add an additional fourth and fifth stage built by Alliant Techsytems Inc. (ATK) to meet the exact mission requirements.

The Minotaur V was specifically developed to deliver spacecraft to a transfer orbit. This program was initiated in March 2010 and the development of the fifth stage, peculiar to Minotaur V, started in November 2010. The Minotaur V is an upgraded design that lifts small payloads to a highly elliptical orbit such as a lunar transfer orbit or a geosynchronous orbit.

This was the first launch of a rocket this size from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. It also was Orbital's first launch of the Minotaur V, which included launch site infrastructure, range operations, safety considerations and rocket systems; all of these items had to be newly developed or modified to accommodate this large vehicle. In addition, the rocket designers built an innovative spin-stabilization technique to achieve the most complex lunar flight path since the Apollo missions. All of this was accomplished by a team comprised of members from NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility, Orbital Sciences and its subcontractor, the U.S. Air Force and the Mid-Atlantic Area Regional
Spaceport.

While the Minotaur V and LADEE were 'first' in many respects, the launch was nothing new for SMC and the RSLP. The Minotaur V was RSLP's 700th launch overall, which includes space, suborbital systems and targets, but only its 17th space launch. RSLP began in 1962 as a cost-effective approach to using surplus government rockets to provide launch vehicles across government programs.

The Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., is the U.S. Air Force's center of acquisition excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems. Its portfolio includes GPS, military satellite communications, defense meteorological satellites, space launch and range systems, satellite control networks, space based infrared systems and space situational awareness capabilities.