SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
When SpaceX launched a satellite into space with a once-used booster rocket March 30 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 2nd Lt. Gregory Allen was tucked more than 1,800 miles away at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, monitoring the event through the Air Force Satellite Control Network.
Using antennas from sites all over the world, the network was receiving telemetry signals from the booster's transponder and relaying it back to its customers.
"We want to track things that are going into the orbit. We want to make sure that when they leave the ground, we know exactly where they are and we don't lose track of them," said Allen, 22nd Space Operations Squadron orbital analyst and launch officer.
Although the event was historic to the outside world, the launch is just another day for the men and women supporting the AFSCN, endearingly pronounced AF-Scan.
“It’s just business as usual,” the lieutenant said.
For a system having been its fair share of historical events, such as NASA’s space shuttle missions and the first GPS satellite among others, the SpaceX launch seemed a bit mundane through the eyes of AFSCN members, it wasn’t anything new.
With an out-of-this-world endeavor, AFSCN’s brain of the network is comprised of two of the 50th Space Wing’s geographically separated Space Operations Squadrons and 22 SOPS. The 21st Space Operations Squadron is based at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while the 23rd Space Operations Squadron is at New Boston Air Force Station, New Hampshire; both enabling worldwide connection through its antenna. Each of the squadrons mentioned has subordinate units, or additional geographically separated units, in far flung areas of the world —such as Diego Garcia, Guam, Hawaii, Greenland and the United Kingdom ensuring the sun never sets in AFSCN.
With all the antennas, the network provides the bandwidth and allows users to link with their satellites to check their health and maneuver them as necessary to accomplish their mission.
“You can think of us as a cellphone provider. We provide those links that you can talk to someone else on the other end of the line and the other end of the line is your satellite,” said Maj. Gregory Stewart, 22 SOPS mission commander.
The subscribers for this Air Force network include Schriever units, such as 2nd Space Operations Squadron, which commands and controls the GPS; and 3rd and 4th Space Operations squadrons, which manages several military satellite communications. Other governmental agencies that use the AFSCN include Air Force Space Command units, NASA and National Reconnaissance Office among others. On average, the network provides 24/7 support to more than 170 satellites.
One of the primary organizations the AFSCN team works with is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency that provides daily weather forecasts, storm warning and other climate information.
“We give them time so they can get their data from their satellites then pass it on to the users,” said Brian Honor, 22 SOPS satellite network scheduler.
Honor provides communication links and allocates time for users to contact their satellites, roughly 450 contacts per day.
Think of a scheduler as a cross between an old-school telephone operator and a baseball coach. In the olden days people had to call an operator to get connected to another individual, similar to the role a scheduler plays.
Unlike the classic operator; however, the schedulers follow the network tasking order, sometimes referred to as the “batting order” of all the agencies that need satellite contact. Ultimately, this makes it their job, much like a baseball coach, to prioritize the lineup, based on the “teams” needs, and knowledge he has of the tasks and coordination needed to get their respective missions done.
“The most testing part of our job is to make the decision as fast as we can,” Honor said.
On a day-to-day basis, the schedule goes through more than 100 real-time changes. However, situations may arise when a satellite has an emergency and schedulers must decide quickly to help solve the problem and minimize the impact on the other users in the batting order.
“That is not something you can do with an automated system. We are there for that 24-hour real time support to the users so they can get to their satellites,” Honor said.
The need for qualified personnel around-the-clock is precisely why schedulers go through yearlong training to learn about the ins and outs of the network, each satellite’s personalities, prioritization of the batting order and more.
“It’s mind boggling how much information you have to learn about the system,” Honor said. “Information is key and that’s one of the things we help do. We help get the information to the right people at the right times.”
While making history in space is “just a day in the office” for schedulers like Honor, there is still plenty of skill and importance that can be associated with the occupation, and even with the challenges, Honor says he is proud to work with the AFSCN team.
Without the constant moving parts and consistently vigilant eyes of AFSCN personnel, events such as the SpaceX launch would not be as efficient or as successful as they have been for operators, squadrons and missions around the world over the last 60 years
“It’s fulfilling on a daily basis. There’s always something that you’ve done that’s extremely important to our way of life,” he said proudly.
For an understanding of the structure of our GSUs: GSU Layout: AFSCN Explained