By Airman William Tracy
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Far north – so far, the northern lights are south – sits Detachment 1 of the 23rd Space Operations Squadron, a remote unit nearly situated on top of the world in the ice fields of Thule Air Base, Greenland.
As the northernmost U.S. armed forces installation, Thule AB’s unique location allows Detachment 1 to efficiently and frequently track satellite movements overhead. Relaying this information in a timely manner is vital to the Air Force Satellite Control Network, and as part of Schriever’s network of geographically separated units, Detachment 1 serves as a testament to its worldwide outreach.
Providing telemetry, tracking and commanding operations for U.S and its allies through its mission, Detachment 1’s northern location allows contact with polar orbiting satellites 10-12 times a day – much more frequent than other AFSCN tracking stations, which are limited to sparse daily contact.
“The location enables the mission,” said Maj. Uri Mandelbaum, Detachment 1 commander. “Without being in this area, we wouldn’t have nearly as much visibility and connection with orbiting satellites.”
The unit is a crucial part of Thule, which also hosts the 21st Space Wing’s 821st Air Base group, and a handful of Danish and Greenland contractors.
This small community provides a close-knit backdrop for the important satellite tracking and operations missions held there, said Master Sgt. Andrew Martin, detachment chief.
“There is an incredible sense of espirit de corps and community here I haven’t found anywhere else,” said Martin. “It’s a very small base, we only have about 100 active duty personnel here. Although small, everyone looks out for each other.”
Thule has seen a significant downsize since the Cold War era, when more than 10,000 military personnel worked on base, always on standby due to the looming Soviet presence.
The base has a museum and other remnants serving as a reminder of Thule’s olden days, said Martin. Among the relics is an old munitions warehouse and a shelter which has an office space that is part of a bunker complex – all well preserved in the arctic climate.
“It’s like frozen history, there is nothing else like it,” he said.
Now dedicated to satellite operations, the general mission of the base has changed, but the unique conditions of the arctic remain the same. Base personnel experience months of incessant darkness, as well as months of sunlight, subzero arctic temperatures, and isolation, the nearest town being Qaanaaq, 75 miles northwest of Thule with a population of only 600.
“It’s an austere environment, it isn’t exactly hospitable,” said Martin. “We deal with a lot of communication issues with everything so far north. There are difficult aspects of being here but the good outweighs the bad by far.”
Despite the challenges, Thule’s critical location is an exceedingly important asset of the Department of Defense; however, its vital mission would be nonexistent without the crucial efforts of Detachment 1 and other base personnel.
“Having this presence in the arctic will become more and more important in the upcoming years,” said Mandelbaum. “We are an important link in the chain which connects Schriever to their satellites in space.”