What goes up may come down. For launches from spaceports like Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Vandenberg Space Force Base (formerly Vanderberg Air Force Base) near Lompoc, California, on the West Coast, or NASA’s Wallops Island facility near Chincoteague, Virginia, the Coast Guard provides a presence at sea to keep nearby waters clear of marine traffic.
The Coast Guard works with the Space Force’s 45th Space Wing, NASA, and commercial launch providers to promulgate limited-access safety zones. On launch day, the Coast Guard monitors and patrols those zones to keep boaters out of an area where debris or hazardous materials might fall incidental to launch.
Cmdr. Jill Lamb, chief of response for Sector Jacksonville, Florida, said the Captain of the Port (COTP) promulgates notices to mariners to set forth those limited access safety areas. Her team uses a local risk assessment tool for each launch. “It’s scalable, so we can look at all the factors and adjust our force laydown. It might vary, depending on if we’re dealing with a satellite launch or an astronaut launch.”
The highest risk is usually within the first minute or minute-and-a-half of launch, depending on launch vehicle, configuration, azimuth, or planned specific tests, said Chief Warrant Officer John Chandler, commanding officer of Station Port Canaveral.
The Coast Guard has search and rescue responsibilities and law enforcement authorities.
“During those launches that are deemed high risk or when we receive a request from the 45th for surveillance assets, our vessels would patrol within the launch danger area, ensuring vessel masters are aware of the hazardous areas and CG [Coast Guard] – enforceable Limited Access Areas [LAA],” Chandler said. “Our job with the USSF [U.S. Space Force] day of launch is to provide CG authority in the event a boater is causing the overall risk analysis to increase, which can affect proceeding to launch, hold, or scrub.”
But the Coast Guard’s responsibilities go beyond launch day. Increased launch activity means more space-related shipping going in and out of Port Canaveral for commercial launch partners such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Boeing, and Orbital ATK. Large rocket assemblies and bulk shipments of rocket fuels can arrive by sea at Port Canaveral. Specialized vessels are used to recover booster assemblies at sea, including autonomous barges on which boosters can land and be brought back to port for refurbishing and reuse.
As the local officer in charge of marine inspection, the sector commander is charged with inspecting and approving those highly specialized maritime vessels.
“We go aboard to ensure compliance with regulations and safety requirements,” Lamb said. “It’s becoming more challenging to learn these new vessels. They don’t fit squarely into the typical ship categories we’re used to, and each of these commercial operators have their own types of vessels. As the technology advances and their experience grows, the operators are constantly adjusting their procedures and modifying their vessels, which means we need to conduct frequent inspections to deal with the changes.”
But with all the new technologies, new vessels, and increased number of space launches, Lamb said the Coast Guard is very experienced with space operations. “We’ve been a mission supporter since 1955.”