Elite team prevents launch interference

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- Today's modern rockets have many delicate systems, all of which must function perfectly for a smooth launch.

Besides the many professionals of the 45th Space Wing, an elite group of Airmen and civilians from the 85th Engineering Installation Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., are doing their part to ensure those launches take place.

The EIS members arrive at least a day before a scheduled launch to ensure their equipment is calibrated and ready to go, said Senior Electronics Engineer Greg Smith.

On a launch day, the 85 EIS group will break into two teams. The beacon team tests the C-band Radar Transponder of the launch vehicle that allows ground-based radar to track it on the way to orbit. The Radio Direction Finding and Monitoring team monitors the radar, telemetry and flight termination systems for signs of interference.

The RDF team maintains two vehicles at their site a few miles from the launch pad. Besides the main van, there is also a rapid response vehicle that acts as a test lab. "If we pick up a signal, we can go find it," said Staff Sgt. Patrick Rowland, radio frequency transmissions specialist. The two vehicles will then triangulate their equipment to find the source of the interference. If they cannot remove the source of the interference, the team passes that information up the chain of command, which could ultimately lead to scrubbing the launch attempt, said Senior Electronics Engineer Nick Wilson.

Interference can come from passing aircraft or even a small wireless device on the ground. For example, during a recent space shuttle launch, the EIS team detected interference from an airborne radar system. "It threatened to scrub the launch but we identified what it was in time to have them shut off so it didn't affect the countdown," Mr. Wilson said.

As the 85th Engineering Installation Squadron, members have worked on all launches for both the Air Force and NASA since October, but under different unit names they have supported operations at Cape Canaveral for much longer. "We've been doing anti-interference work for the Air Force since 1961," Mr. Wilson said, who added that he 85 EIS is the only unit in the Air Force that does this specialized work for space launches and other missions, including electromagnetic pulse testing for nuclear events.

Mr. Wilson has worked all of the launches at Cape Canaveral since the 85 EIS took over monitoring duties. The GOES-P mission was the first for Staff Sgt. Patrick Rowland, a radio frequency transmissions specialist.

"I've always wanted to see a launch up close and personal and it's really neat to be a part of it making sure nothing goes wrong," Sergeant Rowland said.