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Testing for success with 576th FLTS

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Taking the time to ensure quality work, Senior Airman Colby Green (left) and Staff Sgt. Carlos Laurencio (right), both of the 576th Flight Test Squadron, prepare to execute a hoist chain inspection here May 14. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Taking the time to ensure quality work, Senior Airman Colby Green (left) and Staff Sgt. Carlos Laurencio (right), both of the 576th Flight Test Squadron, prepare to execute a hoist chain inspection here May 14. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDEBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "T-minus 60 seconds; go for launch, igniters on, engine start, lift off!" 

These are the classic launch checks performed in the final crucial seconds before a launch, but what precedes the final minute?

Before the launch is even scheduled, members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron here are working to ensure the mission will be a success. The squadron is divided into two units, maintenance and operations, and the two work together toward the completion of a successful launch.

The launch of a missile, a Minuteman III, begins months before the actual launch date. To plan for the delivery of a missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile test manager, as part of the operations unit, first coordinates with Air Force Space Command's three other missile wings.

Missile selection begins approximately five months out, said Capt. Christopher Terry, 576th FLTS test manager. A Test Execution Order is generated, containing the information that instructs the participating missile wing when and where to ship the missile components used to execute the launch.

After the missile is shipped to Vandenberg, the maintenance unit takes over. The many flights that comprise the maintenance unit run a battery of tests and checks in an effort to make certain the missile is ready when the launch date approaches.

"The mission of the 576th is to test and evaluate the ICBM weapons system through several functions, including operational test launches, electronics tests and software validation," said Master Sgt. Jesus Medrano, the 576th FLTS resources flight superintendent.

The maintenance unit is responsible for sustaining the support equipment, vehicles and launch facilities necessary to execute the launch. Members of the maintenance team also install a command destruct system as a safety configuration. The system allows the missile to be destroyed in the event of a missile mis-flight. Everything from electronics to communication to safety must be checked out prior to the launch.

Once the missile has been cleared for launch, the operations unit regains control of the missile. The operations unit is responsible for test planning, test execution and test reporting, said Captain Terry. The operations unit places the missile on alert about three weeks prior to the launch and continues to communicate with the launch site to ensure everything remains ready for the launch.

Once the launch is executed, launch analysis is performed. Preliminary data is gathered in an effort to decide if the launch was a success. Even in the event of a scrubbed launch, the information gathered is crucial, said Maj. Dale Overholts, a 576th FLTS maintenance operations officer.

"A successful test doesn't necessarily mean the missile was launched; anything that helps identify short-comings with the current weapons system is seen as a success," said Major Overholts.

The units of the 576th FLTS work together to accomplish the launching of ICBMs, in an effort to provide a deterrent to opposing countries. Without each flight in the two units working together, the squadron would not be successful, said Chief Master Sgt. Carey Allen, the 576th FLTS superintendent.