Space launch audit stresses need to upgrade aging range items

By Briana Reilly / January 7, 2022 at 12:13 PM

A new Defense Department inspector general audit found that while the Space Force has enabled successful launches from its bases in Florida and California, the service lacked spare parts needed to replace range item components -- a shortage that in some cases could lead to data loss, delay or an aborted mission.

Aiming to assess the extent to which officials maintained the needed infrastructure and equipment to support current and future space launches, the report, released publicly today, found the Space Force is facing “an increased risk that aging range items with obsolete components could limit future launch capacity.”

The warning comes as the IG’s office concluded the service kept up its range items -- including radars, optical devices, and weather towers -- and thus cleared the way for successful launches in the 30 that auditors reviewed between January 2018 and March 2021 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, CA, and Patrick SFB, FL. Ninety DOD, federal civilian agencies and commercial space launches were logged in that period, per the audit.

In all, Space Force data included in the audit shows more than one-fourth of the 260 items on the eastern and western ranges, where launches are conducted, “did not have the spare parts needed to repair or replace some range item components if necessary” because many were obsolete.

Included in that total is 31 range items that did not have spare parts for mission-critical components, where a failure could lead to paused or postponed launch times, an aborted mission or a post-launch data loss.

Still, the report notes the Space Force is working to upgrade or divest from those critical items to address the shortages, with the effort expected to be completed prior to 2024 “regardless of funding status.” Beyond that, the document reports the service is looking to stave off sustainment issues by leveraging autonomous flight safety systems, a launch vehicle-mounted system that can track and terminate flight, making many range items unnecessary in ensuring a safe launch -- part of the Space Force’s “Range of the Future” investments.

Auditors, finding the service’s actions to mitigate the situation to be “appropriate,” opted not to make recommendations in that area.

The upgrades are of particular importance as the service stands poised to see a 220% increase in the total number of launches it will support, from 49 in 2021 to 157 in 2027, the audit states.

“This increased operational tempo, combined with a lack of spare parts for mission critical range item components, increases the possibility that a non-mission capable range item will cause a launch hold or scrub,” the report notes.