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Hanscom team supports NASA, plays role in SpaceX launch

Hanscom team supports NASA, plays role in SpaceX launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, is launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida, May 30. Before and during the launch, the Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft System team out of Hanscom Air Force Base monitored the site to protect assets from potential aerial threats posed by unnamed aircraft. (NASA photo by Bill Ingalls)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – When SpaceX and NASA successfully launched the Crew Dragon Demo-2 spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, May 30, a team from the Digital Directorate here was on-site to defend assets from potential aerial threats posed by unmanned aircraft.

NASA reached out to Digital’s Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft System team in early February for support. C-sUAS personnel immediately went to work developing strategies to assist.  

“We had to sit down and think about how to meet NASA’s needs in this circumstance,” said Capt. Nathaniel Griffith, program manager, U.S. Space Force C-sUAS at Hanscom. “We looked at what they were asking for and determined that we could move around resources to provide support.”

Specifically for Cape Canaveral, the team needed to provide a system that monitored the launch area before and during take-off, said Jaime Maguire, program manager, U.S. Strategic Command C-sUAS at Hanscom.

“We were currently developing this capability, but it was going to be a few months after the event before it was fielded,” she said. “Fortunately, we were able to initiate a new fielding strategy, which allowed us to prioritize certain items in the acquisition process. This allowed us to obtain the assets necessary for the launch.”  

Except for a shift in launch date due to tropical storm Bertha, the mission went off without a hitch.

“Our system operated flawlessly,” said Griffith. “We detected a host of UASs in the area, but nothing intruded on the restricted air space. Our system gave the operators great awareness of their battlespace and of potential threats in the vicinity. This capability was a terrific addition to the Base Defense Operations Center at Cape Canaveral.”

Over the last decade, drones have posed security threats and grounded flights across the aviation industry. In 2016, the Department of Defense directed the Air Force, Army, and Navy to develop counter-drone technology to combat this issue.

To assist with the launch, the team developed a contingency plan to combat the travel restrictions and shipping delays associated with the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. By reducing air travel and increasing communication with partners, team members were able to get their sensors in place in time for the launch.

“The COVID restrictions did play a role, especially in the beginning, so coordination and team work was really important,” said Maguire. “We each had a part in making this successful.”

To execute its mission, C-sUAS collaborated with NASA, the 45th Security Forces and Space Launch Squadrons from Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, the Air Force Research Laboratory, as well as numerous contractors.

The SpaceX launch was the first commercial manned space flight in history. The launch was also the first U.S. space flight in a decade, following the conclusion of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011.

“It was really exciting to be there in person and a big honor to be a part of it,” said Griffith. “I am just so impressed with all of the hard work from everyone involved.”