MUOS Launch Team Aims for Perfection

STARS Lab MUOS Launch attempt Feb 16 2012

Aerospace personnel monitor real-time information in the STARS lab for the Feb. 16 MUOS satellite launch attempt. Photography by Eric Hamburg.


“Ground systems.”


“Upper stage fuel pressure.”


A crowd made up of Aerospace senior leadership and special guests listened intently as the launch director ran through the checklist in anticipation of the launch of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) aboard an Atlas V on Feb. 16.

The nearly hour-long launch window was drawing to a close and the tension in the small viewing room above the A1 Spacelift Telemetry Acquisition and Reporting System (STARS) lab was growing with each passing moment. Below, the team in the lab worked with mounting intensity to ensure all systems were set for a successful launch.

MUOS is a narrowband military satellite communications system. When operational, it will provide increased communications capabilities to ultra high frequency (UHF) users. The UHF spectrum is unique because it is the only frequency that works in inclement weather, dense foliage, and urban environments.

Up until this point, the MUOS launch had proceeded in fits and starts. Each time it seemed the team got closer to being given the green light, another 20-minute hold was imposed.

During a launch, Aerospace has a distinguished team of technical experts in the STARS lab monitoring data from the launch site in real time. This is a crucial function of the mission assurance support that the corporation provides to all Department of Defense missions. STARS was developed in the mid 1990s and has been used to monitor launches since 1998.

Finally, just as the last minutes were ticking down on the clock, the launch director gave the OK to proceed with the launch, pending confirmation from several weather balloons being floated that wind conditions were favorable.

The first balloon reported good weather conditions, as did the second. But the last balloon indicated windy conditions higher in the atmosphere and with T-minus 1 minute, 15 seconds left on the countdown, the launch was scrubbed.

There were audible sighs among viewers at the STARS lab as the launch director at the Cape announced the cancellation.

Though it was a disappointment for everyone sitting in the viewing gallery, hoping to see one of engineering’s most impressive achievements, it gives people not involved in the day-to-day workings of a launch an idea of just how seriously Aerospace and its colleagues across the launch industry take the responsibility of ensuring that Department of Defense payloads make it successfully into space. These professionals are not willing to let anything, no matter how small, jeopardize 100 percent mission success.

The next launch window for MUOS is Friday, Feb. 24, between 5:15 and 5:59 p.m. EST. The launch crew will be expecting nothing short of perfection.

—Allison Barker