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NASA’s Diverse Fiber Paths

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) operates 20 centers and facilities around the country along with the International Space Station (ISS), driving America’s civil space program and leading global space exploration. Two of those facilities, Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, are multi-user spaceports providing the agency with diverse ways to launch satellites into space and regular supply missions to ISS. 

Fiber plays a key role in supporting NASA’s enterprise and launch operations at both spaceports, as well as the hundreds of contractors and a steadily growing number of commercial spaceflight companies working with the agency to put people and things into orbit at competitive prices. Kennedy and Wallops are economic engines creating jobs and massive amounts of data that require resilient high-speed broadband for safety and science.

Kennedy Space Center is a multi-user spaceport supporting tens of thousands of jobs. Source: NASA

From Balloons to the Moon 

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) was established in 1945 – over two decades before Kennedy was officially commissioned– and does a lot of things, including conducting research using aircraft, balloons, and suborbital sounding rockets; developing small spacecraft; operating NASA’s only research airport; providing launch and orbital support for NASA spacecraft; conducting Uncrewed Aircraft System (UAS) testing and operations; and partnering with Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) for the launch of orbital vehicles. Since its founding, there have been over 16,000 launches from the pads on Virgina’s Eastern Shore, ranging from short-hop suborbital sounding rockets, early testing of Mercury capsules before the first astronauts were launched from Florida, and a probe to the Moon. 

WFF is made up of three distinct parcels of land. The airfield and the surrounding base are north of Wallops Island proper and the mainland plot east of the island anchoring the causeway between it and the island. “We’ve got a lot of tenants here,” said Ted Schultz, Service Area Lead, Facility Unique and Specialized Engineering Group (FUSE), WFF. “The rockets are only a small part it. The Navy has its facilities on the island. We’re part of the ground tracking station for the Deep Space Network, the TDRS satellite constellation– we’ve got 24×7 operations here.” 

NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia is the primary launch facility for Northop Grumman’s Antares rocket for its supply missions to the International Space Station. Source: Doug Mohney

WFF has two diverse 10 Gbps fiber connections to NASA and the rest of the world. Its northbound connection goes through Maryland across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and connects to the NASA network in the Washington, D.C., area. The southbound connection goes through Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) fiber and its route along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, landing in Norfolk where it goes through commercial services to connect with NASA’s network at the Marshall Space Flight Center to Huntsville, Alabama. 

“We’ve done a whole lot of work over the last 10 years to ensure that that we have geographic diversity for NASA and our tenants,” said Schultz. “We have four different cables to the island itself. About 25 years ago, they laid a fiber optic cable into the marsh. That cable was damaged a couple of times by dredging operations in the area. A year and a half ago, we put in a new 864 strand cable going across the marsh that was directionally drilled underneath for better protection.”

On the island itself, there are multiple launch pads leased by MARS and operated by different organizations for orbital missions, including a large facility for Northop Grumman’s Antares, a smaller pad for Rocket Lab’s Electron next to it, and further south, a barebones concrete pad and gantry for Northop Grumman’s Minotaur. To the north, Northop Grumman has a building where it assembles its Antares rocket with the Cygnus cargo freighter for ISS resupply and the Navy’s Surface Combat Systems Center operates an AEGIS training facility. Under construction south of the Minotaur pad, is a new launch pad, landing pad, and barge dock for Rocket Lab’s larger Neutron rocket, a reusable vehicle that will be built just outside of the mainland entrance to Wallops and is expected to have its first flight in 2025. 

There are four distributed communication hubs with redundant fiber routes to each one along the length of the island, enabling NASA to operate its own network and provide dark fiber to everyone that needs it. “Without dark fiber for our tenants and our partners to interconnect and share data, we’d be completely lost,” said Schultz. “You’ve got a lot of different organizations that have different roles and responsibilities.” For example, MARS uses NASA dark fiber to connect its network of IP video cameras monitoring the launch sites across the island while Northop Grumman maintains communications with its Antares rocket assembly facility on different strands. 

Resilience and redundancy are always in the discussion when WFF pulls fiber since accidents occasionally happen with dramatic effects. The Cygnus Orb-3 launch on October 28, 2014, exploded seconds after liftoff, showering the island with burning fuel and shredded rocket debris. “We used to use an above ground cable tray,” said Schultz. “It could have been a bad day if that vehicle had landed on one. All our cabling on the island was moved underground through our duct system after that.” 

The Big Show at KSC

Since 1968, the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Merritt Island, Florida, has been NASA’s primary launch center of human spaceflight, where the Space Shuttle flew from for decades, and the place where people traveled to the Moon and will do so again in the future. KSC sits adjacent to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and its line of launch pads used for commercial and national security operations.

Since the retirement of the Shuttle program in 2011, KSC has transitioned from a NASA-only facility to a multi-user spaceport supporting more than 90 private-sector partners and nearly 13,000 people in the 700 buildings and facilities spread across 144,000 acres. Upgrading KSC over the past decade to support commercial activities as well as to address the burden of legacy telecom media has been a long and ongoing process, with fiber playing a key role in providing more reliable and resilient communications less impacted by lightning and other weather events. 

“We would be in a world of hurt if we didn’t have fiber, because the number of bits we’re required to supply would just not have been feasible,” said George Dutt, Center Mission Integration Lead, Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), NASA. “Our legacy infrastructure was totally inadequate. We started with a copper infrastructure and transitioning over to fiber helped us out tremendously. We have a lot of legacy infrastructure which was originally designed by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the early ‘60s. Our main infrastructure is underground. We have no aerial presence at all, because of the lightning and moving things on roads. It basically consists of orange ducts encased in concrete with manholes spaced around 700 feet apart. We installed our first fiber optics cable around the mid-80s, a mixed cable of multimode and single mode. Eventually we graduated into being just a single mode outside plant facility.” 

Switching over to fiber has enabled KSC to repurpose its legacy telecom infrastructure, removing large copper cables out of four-inch ducts and filling it full of innerducts to get very high capacity and routing diversity. There are about 800 route miles of fiber across the campus, with the minimal installation a 72-strand cable and the largest at 432 strands, “because more seems ridiculous at this point,” commented John Wolff, Outside Cable Plant Design Engineer, KSC. 

The KSC campus operates a number of 100 Gbps optical rings to provide wide area connectivity around the facility with 10 Gbps connections going into facilities and 10 Gbps copper connectivity available to the desktop. Depending on their requirements, on-campus users outside of NASA, such as contractors and commercial launch operators, may request anything from dark fiber to simply plugging into the local Ethernet port, with dark fiber connected at a demark point to a commercial carrier leaving the facility as needed. Video cameras providing launch coverage are connected using a variety of media. Newer 4K high-definition cameras are on fiber, while legacy ones remain on coax.

While KSC has steadily removed copper from the physical infrastructure, it hasn’t been fully eliminated. “It’s not used very much, but there are a lot of legacy circuits,” said Dutt. “We’re talking circuits that go back 30 to 40 years that just never transitioned off copper. The amount of copper [in use] has shrunk tremendously. If you go into our central office, and you look at the main distribution frame there for copper, it’s shrunk down to maybe one-tenths the space, because we’ve gotten rid of all the copper.”

A significant chunk of legacy infrastructure was removed when KSC transitioned to VoIP, a decade-long migration completed in 2021, but some equipment will remain on copper because of its age, such as weather instrumentation and other sensors. “Some of this copper will stay that way forever. I can give you an example to visualize,” said Wolff. “Say there’s weather instrumentation 40 yards into a field. That’s 40 yards of buried copper cable back to the nearest point where it would be converted back to fiber. The possibility of that ever getting changed is really slim for outlying reporting of that type because it’s expensive to go trench and add another 40 yards of buried innerduct for the fiber and they still have to have power to convert it back over at its equipment.” 

Trenching and new construction also requires various permits, depending on where construction takes place, since Merritt Island is a National Wildlife Refuge and various sites at KSC are of historic importance. “All the digging operations out at KSC have to go through a site plan, an Environmental Impact Statement, and Habitat approval and locates before they can start digging,” said Wolff.

While there are no squirrels to chew on fiber and field crews must keep an eye out for the occasional alligator that they may stumble onto, there are other animals which cause problems. “Rodents can cause a disruption, but it’s rare. About two decades ago, we had some endangered beach mice that got into one of the pad comm rooms and ate some of the fiber cable under the floor,” said Wolff. “They had to be collected. They couldn’t be exterminated, because they’re endangered so they had to trap them and get them out of the bed.”