Kauai Test Facility crew thrives in trying circumstances
"FM-5?" asks the backlit shape of the uniformed sentry.
FM-5 is shorthand for the missile defense launch I have been invited here to see. At this dark hour, launch preparations are the only thing happening on the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF).
He cross-checks my credentials with the FM-5 guest list, then motions me to pass through a heavily fortified gate.
Three miles north, at the end of the Navy base’s winding main road, a single fluorescent light illuminates a sign, framed in the familiar Sandia blue: "Sandia National Laboratories, Kauai Test Facility, Operated for the US
Department of Energy."
Dean Manning (15419), team supervisor at KTF, climbs out of a red SUV, Hawaii license plate KTF-MGR, and meets me at the main office, a three-room trailer at the top of wooden stairs.
It’s 1:15 a.m., but we are not the first to arrive. Five cars are parked in front of a brightly lit cluster of more than two-dozen aging but well-maintained trailers, all connected by white-painted wooden decking that raises "trailer city’s" floor four feet off the ground. A half-acre corrugated metal roof held high by square steel poles — no walls — covers this indoor village.
I have flown 4,000 miles and driven 30 miles across an island paradise, and I still haven’t seen a thing. It’s pitch black out there, except for a ring of lights that bathes a large white tent — Launch Pad 1 — about 400 yards to the southwest. Underneath the tent, says Dean, is the rocket.
A generator hums, and lazy waves slap against an unseen shore.
We stop at the site’s coffee pot and head down a flight of stairs and into the bunker-walled Launch Operations Building, referred to as the el-oh-bee (LOB), one of a few permanent buildings at the site.
Originally KTF was a mobile launch facility, hence the trailers. But in the late 1980s a major upgrade was undertaken with funds allocated during President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. The permanent buildings are a result of that upgrade. (See "Then and now …" on page 9.)
Inside the LOB, Dave Salguero (15414) and Ed Mader (15419) preside over a wall of knobs and screens displaying squiggly lines that describe the ascent of a weather balloon launched a few hours earlier, one of three planned for today.
Here, at about 30,000 feet (Dave points out a leftward jut), the balloon encountered winds, the jet stream. Expected, he says, but high winds, particularly those that might carry rocket debris toward land or shipping lanes, could scrub a launch.
Telling the launch story
It’s 2:30 a.m., and more people are arriving at the LOB now. Wilson Brooks (15419) and Shawn Garcia (2661) are in the data acquisition room troubleshooting a problem with a spaghetti dinner of connector cables. Wilson is an experienced hand at KTF. This is Shawn’s first trip, but he’s clearly been around racks of equipment before.
At launch, numerous data streams will flow into these racks from various radars, trackers, and on-rocket telemetry systems, to be recorded and re-routed to other KTF stations. A single 3-1/2-minute rocket flight can generate many gigabytes of data, all synced to universal time code, says Wilson. This data will tell the story of the launch.
In the LOB’s control room, Walt Rutledge (15414 Manager) and Marc Kniskern (15414) pore over atmospheric data they’re getting from the balloon and from various weather web sites. They are part of Sandia’s flight safety crew, and their job is to advise PMRF on range safety conditions prior to launch. The Navy has ultimate authority to make and enforce flight safety decisions.
Safety in numbers
Walt and Marc use probabilistic risk assessment techniques and models, running calculations on their laptops and on faraway supercomputers to determine the relative risks of the launch. They generate casualty-expectation estimates in the event of a launch mishap — in stark terms, if the rocket exploded before or after launch, or if it malfunctioned and had to be destroyed in mid-flight by launch controllers.
They use breakup models to predict the number and sizes of pieces of rocket debris following a hypothetical intercept or intentional destruct to produce impact probability contours — maps of the Pacific overlaid with swaths of bright colors representing zones of risk. Other factors, such as commercial air and shipping traffic and the number of visitors to a nearby public beach, must be watched as well, says Walt.
"There are millions of hypothetical situations and possibilities to be aware of," he says. "Our job is to consider all the things that can go wrong, backed up by analysis, to ensure that the test is as safe as possible for the public and test participants."
As real as it gets
It’s 4 a.m. Al Lopez (15419 Manager) runs a meeting of 25 people representing the parties participating in today’s practice launch — emissaries from Sandia, Orbital Sciences Corp., the Navy, Air Force, and Army, and from various other defense subcontractors, including a hush-hush group whose work no one talks about.
Today is only a dress rehearsal, but the room is electric.
In 25 minutes, a 5-1/2-hour countdown begins. It will be the final full "sim count" before the real launch two days from now. The FM-5 team, today about 75 people, will work through every procedure except launching the rocket.
The team already has conducted a dozen smaller simulations, including "off nominal" scenarios when mock obstacles are fed into the system by computer, testing the team’s ability to overcome them.
"Today we put it all together," says Dean. "This is as real as it gets."
Pitching it down the middle
For this test, KTF is providing launch support, but the pressure is on Orbital. In two days, if all goes well, Orbital program manager Joe Dimaggio and his team will watch the fruit of their labor blast into the atmosphere.
Then they’ll watch the monitors in the control room, anxiously, for evidence that their baby has been destroyed in space by a Navy SM-3 interceptor rocket launched from a Navy destroyer 250 kilometers northwest of the island. Orbital’s objective is to provide a "good target" — a rocket pitched at the proper trajectory and velocity right over the plate, an imaginary exoatmospheric batter’s box that is 6 miles high by 6 miles wide by 54 miles long, 55 miles above the Pacific.
Lists of checklists
Revision 4 of the official countdown is handed out. It lists launch tasks along with the organization or person that must carry out each action on queue for the launch to proceed. (See "Countdown can be a pressure cooker" below.)
There are some 550 actions on KTF’s list, ranging from pre-launch battery checks to confirming burnout of the rocket’s boosters one minute after liftoff. The actions will be carried out during the six-hour countdown and the 3-1/2-minute rocket flight — some in rapid-fire succession, others during slow periods.
But Sandia’s list represents only a fraction of the FM-5 mission. PMRF’s separate checklist contains some 800 tasks. A Navy crew on board the destroyer will follow its own similarly complex countdown.
At 4:25 an electronic male voice reports over the PA system: "All range personnel report to your stations. All unnecessary personnel clear the launch pad now."
It’s T minus 5:30:00. Dean and Steve Lautenschleger (15406), at the control console in the LOB, begin radio roll call.
Beauty in launch
The sun is up, and I accompany launch photographer Diana Helgesen (15419) into the fenced launch pad area. Diana needs to run systems checks on her 10 cameras, which sit in the sun for days. Come launch day, they must work.
Minutes after launch Diana will rush into her trailer darkroom, choose an official FM-5 launch photo, and print copies for the newspapers. More important, her photos become part of the documentation package KTF offers its customers.
"I try to get something that’s unusual, something someone is proud to hang on their wall," she says. "I try to put a little beauty in that launch."
She moves quickly from camera to camera to minimize the time she spends near the pad. Access is restricted during the countdown due to the multiple hazards out here, including 250 pounds of high explosives and four tons of rocket propellant.
Dry like New Mexico
On the way to a camera station we pass Roy Apo and Sharon Cabral (both 15419), members of the full-time contractor crew here, as they prepare a balloon for launch. They have tied on reflectors and GPS locators that allow the balloon to be tracked until it expands and finally pops, at about 120,000 feet.
Three hundred feet away Andy Jones (2333) trains a radar dish on the balloon. Roy releases, and the balloon ascends. Sharon’s walkie-talkie crackles as Andy reports that the radar has a valid radar track.
Except for the ocean view and the sugar cane fields east of the Navy base, this could be south-central New Mexico. It’s dry on this side of the island. Scraggly thickets of kiawe, a form of mesquite, cover high sand dunes that border the launch site. A volcanic outcropping to the north, Makaha Ridge, resembles a black mesa. Mt. Waialeale, a steep green cone to the northeast, overlooks this half of the island.
The sandy shoreline is less than a football field from Pad 1. It is some of the best beach in Hawaii, says Diana, but access is restricted, except to the sneaky.
Tent to trailer
We return to the LOB, but in seconds I am headed out with pad chief Eva Renninger (15419) in a fast red golf cart. A dozen contractors, big guys driving trucks and forklifts and wearing NFL-team-logoed hard hats, fall in behind.
We stop at Pad 1. Before my feet hit the ground members of the pad crew are hurriedly unlatching tie wires and disconnecting air conditioning ducts and positioning a forklift next to the tent. They fold up one end of the tent accordion style and lift the whole thing up on wheels.
As they pull the tent away, the rocket emerges. It is in its horizontal position, affixed to a large rail launcher, and aimed right at the nearby sand dune. A small American flag taped to the rocket’s nose tip slaps in the breeze.
When I return to the LOB 12 minutes later, Dean and Steve are remotely raising the launcher to its upward position, watching the rocket on a video screen as they adjust the azimuth and elevation within tenths of a degree.
At T-minus 46 minutes Eva and Norm Corlis (15419) head out to the launch pad one last time to install the arming plug, a step that provides the electrical power to the rocket needed to initiate the launch sequence. They return to the LOB and return the key, which is kept in a lockbox as a safety precaution.
At T-minus 40 minutes the "terminal count" begins — the final and most critical run-up to launch. Dean and Steve are feeling some pressure.
We are on schedule, says Dean. No anomalies so far. This is good, he says, but the team is taking nothing for granted.
"We start to get tense during this part of the sim," says Dean, "and it’s not even real. Actually, I get nervous just typing the countdown."
Finally it’s launch time. The automated PA voice reports 3 . . . 2 . . . 1. Everything is nominal and the team follows an imaginary rocket into space and reports its imaginary destruction.
While the rocket is in flight, KTF team members receive and record telemetry information from the rocket, provide useful real-time data displays, and capture launch video.
Four minutes later, people are scattering from the control room.
"There’s still a lot to do," says Steve. "There’s a missile on the pad. We have to safe it and get it ready for Wednesday." (See "Countdown can be a pressure cooker below.")
But the KTF team has passed every one of its tests. They’re ready.
Blessing the rocket
Tomorrow a limited staff will convene and run through a series of mini sims.
Father Tom, a local Hawaiian priest, will bless the rocket from the roof of the LOB with a small contingent from PMRF and KTF present. Many years ago locals requested the ceremony out of reverence for native Hawaiian burial grounds on the site. Now it’s tradition. A prayer is orated, and salt is scattered to ward off evil spirits.
"No rocket leaves this base without being blessed by a native priest," says Al.
At 2 p.m. Al sends everyone home for a good night’s rest. He’ll stay. There is unconfirmed word that the Director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, USAF, the ultimate customer for this test, is on the island and might visit KTF this afternoon.