Airmen provide exacting space operations

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Thousands upon thousands of debris pieces are traversing Earth’s orbit. Along with the debris are satellites performing a plethora of functions and even manned vehicles like the International Space Station. Space Operators fill the critical role of keeping it all sorted out.

Overall, the mission of the 18th SPCS is to deliver foundational space situational awareness to assure global freedom of action in space. The squadron is a geographically separated unit of, and the newest addition to, the 21st Space Wing. The squadron was activated in the summer of 2016.

But what exactly does a Space Operator at 18th SPCS do? The Air Force Specialty Code for the career field may seem broad at first, but it’s made up of several specific roles and airmen performing highly detailed functions. Airmen serve as Orbital Safety Analysts, Orbital Analysts, Space Console Operators and Orbital Safety Technicians, to name a few.

The Orbital Analyst plays a serious role in making event data available quickly once an object is in space.

“We provide an observation and make sure it is tagged for the owner/operators,” said Senior Airman Christian Drouin, 18th SPCS orbital analyst. “It’s really important that orbital analysts are on top of things to show the owner/operators which one is their satellite. In my opinion, the top three things in our job is to make sure (objects) are properly named, we have the right information and that objects are tracked correctly from launch for as long as they are up there.”

The Space Console Operator plays a key role in maintaining the satellite catalog, a record of all man-made objects launched into space, said Senior Airman Matthew Purnell, 18th SPCS space console operator. The number of objects presently in the catalog exceeds 40,000 and includes positional data noting exactly where each object is located and what orbit it's in.

“The main focus for a space console operator at the 18th SPCS is to maintain the integrity of the Satellite Catalog,” he said. “The catalog is not only used by the Department of Defense, but also national and international space agencies, corporations, and educators just to name a few.”

Joining with the other roles, orbital safety analysts keep organizations, and nations, aware of positions of objects in Earth’s orbit. John Crowley, 18th SPCS human space flight safety orbital safety analyst, said his job is to make sure the International Space Station and supply ships are protected from more than 22,000 other objects orbiting in the space domain.

“The 18th SPCS coordinates with the NASA Trajectory and Perturbation Officers and receive data concerning when they are launching, berthing and/or docking and re-entering,” said Crowley. “We input them into a software system that determines whether or not there will be any conjunctions with the vehicle or the ISS while they are in orbit.”

Senior Airman Brittany Cason, 18th SPCS Conjunction Assessment Duty Technician, said people in her position are responsible for delivering vital information to over 700 global satellite operators on a daily basis, helping them avoid collisions with other space objects. This information ensures spaceflight safety and preservation of the space environment.

“Our job is to provide advanced analysis and time-critical customer support that resolve high-risk situations and increase the trust that international customers have in the U.S. military,” Cason said. “We also provide launch collision avoidance for customers who provide us their data and screen that against the (satellite) catalogue to ensure their (equipment) has a safe path to space.”

Becoming a space operator has become a fulfilling career for the operators in the 18th SPCS.

“At first I had no idea what it was or what it was all about,” said Purnell. “But during my time at tech school I gained a better idea. It wasn’t until I got into the ‘chair’ and started getting my hands into the work that I got an understanding of just how important the (work) is.”

“When I was initially assigned as a Space Operator I had absolutely no idea what the job entailed,” Cason said. There is still some confusion for people who are not space operators themselves. “Now when I go home, I have others asking me if I actually go to space.”

The squadron provides around the clock support to the space surveillance network, maintaining the satellite catalog and managing U.S. Strategic Command’s SSA sharing program to United States, foreign governments, and commercial entities. In addition, it also oversees 18th SPCS Detachment 1, located in Dahlgren, Virginia, which provides a backup operations center for 18th SPCS and the Joint Space Operations Center.

About 60 military and 25 civilians are permanently assigned to the squadron. Around 30 military personnel are assigned to the operations flight. The rest of the squadron provides support and advanced functions in support of operations.

The career title of space operator might seem ambiguous at first, but the detailed observation, analysis and tracking carried out by squadrons like the 18th SPCS reveal a robust, active and valuable AFSC that is vital to SSA and winning the fight in air, space and cyberspace.