Coast Guard fast-tracks changes after cruise ship scrubs SpaceX launch

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The U.S. Coast Guard modified its procedures in the wake of a cruise ship’s intrusion into a SpaceX launch zone earlier this year, a high-profile incident that highlighted the need for continued conversations on how to handle the confluence of space and maritime traffic.

Among the changes in the works are updated “exclusion zones” for launches and new, modernized ways of disseminating launch updates to ship captains.

Speaking to a packed National Space Club Florida Committee luncheon in Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, Capt. Mark Vlaun said several changes have been implemented since Royal Caribbean‘s Harmony of the Seas entered an exclusion zone in January, forcing SpaceX to scrub a Falcon 9 rocket launch. Some of those changes were already in the works for years, while others more recent.

Cruise ship enters launch area:Cruise ship enters launch hazard area, forcing SpaceX to scrub mission a fourth time

Ship caused scrub:Coast Guard starts investigation of Royal Caribbean ship that caused SpaceX scrub

Launch hazard areas, also known as exclusion zones and keep-out zones, are areas of the Atlantic Ocean closed to maritime traffic during rocket launches. Their borders are defined primarily by the rocket’s trajectory and payload.

“This is the second-busiest cruise ship port in the world,” Vlaun, head of the Jacksonville Coast Guard unit responsible for monitoring launch zones, said Tuesday. “There are times, particularly like a Sunday night, when you’re going to have 11 to 15 cruise ships departing this port.”

Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas is seen departing Port Canaveral in May 2019.

The scrubbed launch was scheduled during that primetime window: 6:11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30. Harmony of the Seas, the third-largest cruise ship in the world capable of hosting nearly 9,000 passengers and crew, violated the launch hazard area by a few miles but was unable to clear it in time for liftoff.

Vlaun said the incident was at least partly caused by the maritime industry’s use of paper for disseminating information. Captains and crews are often notified of hazards via paper since noteworthy obstacles are usually static and don’t change often.

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“In the maritime industry, rocks don’t pop up overnight. Buoys don’t move every day. We can publish these on paper,” Vlaun said. “Four or five days or even a week old is probably still good data.”

“But five-day-old space launch information is not worth the paper it’s printed on,” he said, referencing constantly shifting timelines and last-minute updates that include new parameters like unique flight trajectories.

Falcon 9 did finally launch the Italian Space Agency’s COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation, or CSG-2, satellite a day later on the fifth attempt. Vlaun said he anticipates some kind of consequence for Royal Caribbean’s intrusion, like a fine, but discussions are still underway.

Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun is commander of Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, which includes space-related operations.

Vlaun leads Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville which, on top of its traditional slate of maritime responsibilities, oversees space-related operations and their intersection with the water.

Jacksonville’s responsibilities include making sure the immediate areas below rocket launch trajectories are clear of vessels; providing search-and-rescue support in the event of astronauts aborting a launch over the Atlantic Ocean; coordinating traffic around ports on launch days; and clearing areas for the smooth splashdown of capsules after astronauts complete International Space Station missions.

And because astronauts returning from the ISS can land in one of seven splashdown zones around Florida, oftentimes his teams scramble to provide coverage across that massive zone of responsibility. Ships can only travel so fast.

“We had a special missions unit, fully kitted out, in the Universal Studios (Orlando) parking lot trying to figure out if they were going left or right or north,” Vlaun said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re having to do now.

“It really gets that tactical and complex as we get to some of these landing operations, which can happen even 12 hours out and still be happening hundreds of miles apart,” he said.

His team’s decisions impact other industries, too: if the roles were reversed and the rocket delayed the departure of cruise ships, tens of thousands of travelers could see ripple effects that stretch all the way to Orlando International Airport and beyond.

Working the problem

Vlaun said three major changes have either been implemented or are in the process of being pushed through to better support launch activities:

• Offer more digitized ways of disseminating information to the industry versus the traditional use of paper. The Space Force and Coast Guard, for example, have started producing QR codes that link to Space Launch Delta 45’s website with launch hazard areas.

• Moving away from old safety zones developed for the space shuttle. Until about two months ago, Vlaun said he had four choices for “keep out zones.” They were larger than they needed to be and often in the wrong location, but after more than two years of work, areas can be closed more efficiently around a rocket’s flightpath. This leaves more water open for ships to travel.

• Finally, the Coast Guard is in the process of conducting a study that will overlay historical sea traffic with existing launch trajectories. Because the maritime industry wants consistent, predictable routes, this could help with de-conflicting issues before they arise.

“The reality is right now, this has become one of our busiest and biggest issues for the Coast Guard – this emergence of the space vessel support team,” he said. 

Historically, the Coast Guard supported space shuttle launches, which included months-long gaps between flights. Now, a mix of private and public missions flying everything from Mars landers to Starlink internet satellites means upwards of 50 launches a year – and that doesn’t include other operations that need to be overseen like booster recoveries on drone ships, emergency splashdowns during crewed launches, and more.

“The pace of change and  innovation is extremely high. One of the things I ask industry to do, particularly when dealing with commercial, is help us understand the vision. As a federal regulator, we try to move as fast as the industry, but if that’s something new today that we’re going to implement on Saturday, that’s going to be a challenge,” he said.

Next SpaceX launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center with the company's 45th dedicated Starlink mission on Friday, May 6, 2022.

Vlaun’s Saturday example was actually based in reality: SpaceX recently notified the Coast Guard that its next launch, slated for the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, would include a unique southeastern trajectory. It’s not totally different from previous missions that hugged the state’s coast, but just enough to warrant some changes on his end.

“We just got a brand new trajectory we’ve never heard of come in yesterday that (SpaceX) wants to do Saturday,” he said. “We don’t six months or a year’s notice to try to figure these things out anymore.”

If schedules hold, a 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket will launch the company’s next batch of Starlink internet satellites that day from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Weather for liftoff, set between 4:28 p.m. and 4:49 p.m. EDT, was last calculated by the Space Force at 70% “go.”

After launch toward the southeast, a drone ship will host the rocket’s recovery attempt. 

For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.

Contact Emre Kelly at [email protected] or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.

Launch Saturday, May 14

  • Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
  • Mission: 47th Starlink launch
  • Launch Time: Between 4:28 p.m. and 4:49 p.m. EDT
  • Launch Pad: 39A at Kennedy Space Center
  • Trajectory: Southeast
  • Landing: Drone ship
  • Weather: 70% “go”

Visit floridatoday.com/space at 3 p.m. EDT Saturday, May 14, for real-time updates and video of launch. 

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