SDTD program reaches half century of reliable space launch

The Rocket Systems Launch Program provided the rocket that shot the Tactical Satellite-4 into orbit from the Kodiak Launch Complex. Kodiak, Alaska, Sept. 27, 2011.
During the Rocket Systems Launch Program's 50th anniversary party, conducted at the Phillips Space Conference Center Dec. 3, the newest and longest-standing unit members, 2nd Lt. Kevin Steuterman and John Wee, cut a cake to commemorate the milestone.
By Michael P. Kleiman
377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
January 10, 2013

The only component missing from the two-plus hours in-length festivities conducted at the Phillips Space Conference Center at the Kirtland Air Force Base's west side Dec. 3 would have been repeated playings of Kool & the Gang's No. 1 hit song from 1981, "Celebration."

Commencing with a chili cook off and concluding with the cutting of cake, the event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Space Development and Test Directorate's Rocket Systems Launch Program.

Since its initiation Oct. 26, 1962, the RSLP has accomplished 697 launches employing more than 30 different rocket boosters from 22 separate liftoff locations.

"The RSLP has gone through many iterations in its name and in its missions through the years, but a half century of U.S. launch history resides here," said Col. Urban Gillespie, Chief, Launch Systems Division, SDTD, Space and Missile Systems Center. "Although the program has called Kirtland AFB home for the past 17 years, we want to make sure everybody is aware of the long-standing tradition and heritage we have with the Air Force and the DoD."

Originally called the Advanced Ballistic Re-entry Systems program, the RSLP resided at the now-closed Norton AFB, Calif., for the first three decades of its existence before relocating to New Mexico in the mid-1990s.

In its formative years, the organization concentrated on investigating the physics and science of re-entry vehicles departing and returning through the atmosphere. Ever evolving, the RSLP expanded its missions to involve research and development spacecraft operating in the cosmos, as well as for targets employed by the Missile Defense Agency and its predecessor organizations.

"Although the program has adapted over the years to meet various Air Force missions, the one consistent factor in its success has been, and always will be, the people -- to include our mission partners at Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Operationally Responsive Space Office.

The people are the sole reason why RSLP has set the standard for responsive, reliable and cost-effective launches," said Col. Michael Moran, commander, SDTD.

Initially, the program utilized an Athena-based expendable launch system, followed by variations of the aged Minuteman-based rockets. Currently, the RSLP operates several liftoff vehicles such as the Minotaur class, which incorporates both retired Minuteman and Peacekeeper propulsion equipment.

During its first half century, the unit conducted liftoffs at ranges across the continental U.S., as well as in Alaska, Hawaii and the Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

In 2013, the RSLP will perform three planned launches, with a possible fourth, but one of the highlights of the coming year will be its collaboration with NASA for an experimental mission to the moon.

"The launch is scheduled right now for the August timeframe. It is a lunar atmospheric and dust environment experiment, an important experiment for NASA, and one they hope will demonstrate the agency's ability to perform future science goals at reduced cost," said Gillespie.

"They came to RSLP looking for a reliable and cost-effective launch solution that would accomplish their mission. So we are launching the first Minotaur V class liftoff vehicle from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. It is a five-stage rocket, which will propel the spacecraft into orbit around the moon for several months."

In addition to the upcoming NASA lunar liftoff, the program has also partnered with the Operationally Responsive Space office, also located on Kirtland AFB, and with another DoD program office, which administers the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system, for the 2013 launches of the ORS-3 spacecraft and a launch target vehicle, respectively.

Finally, the RSLP has prepared another target vehicle to serve as a backup for an MDA-sponsored mission next summer. If the primary rocket is not available, the RSLP alternative version will be used instead.

Not one to rest on its 50-year laurels, the RSLP focuses on succeeding in the next half century one launch at a time.

"I think our legacy and future are essentially the same. The RSLP program has demonstrated that reliable and cost-effective access to space is not only possible, but necessary to advance space technology from concept to first-time demos to operational systems," Gillespie said.

"We can and will continue to deliver a full range of launch services tailored specifically for missions the Air Force and DoD agencies are clamoring for today."

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