By Scott Prater
People familiar with Schriever Air Force Base have grown accustomed to hearing the “SOPS” acronym. The 50th Space Wing has plenty of them: one through four, 21, 22 and 23 SOPS. They’re all space operations squadrons under the umbrella of the 50th Space Wing. But, Schriever is also home to a space operations squadron that goes largely unnoticed. And that’s the way leaders like it.
The National Reconnaissance Office Operations Squadron, operates U.S. reconnaissance satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office, an organization which has been shrouded in mystery since its inception in 1961.
The launch and orbit of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik-1 satellite prompted U.S. intelligence leaders to create the organization. Its mere existence was classified for nearly 30 years, but following the collapse of the former military and technological superpower, the NRO’s existence was declassified in 1992. Soon after, the American public and the world began to learn about how important the NRO had become.
National Reconnaissance Office systems are critical to U.S. national security. The agency operates worldwide, monitoring the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, tracking international terrorists and criminal organizations; developing extremely accurate military targeting data and damage assessments; and assessing the impact of natural disasters.
According to Maj. Marcus Nichols, NOPS director of engineering, the local squadron tackles three missions here, much of which remain highly classified.
“We have the technical mission, where we consolidate every NRO program requirement for the Air Force Satellite Control Network,” he said. “Secondly, we collect telemetry data for some space vehicles, all NRO and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and for any other launch as directed by the director of the NRO. We consolidate these multiple telemetry sources into one stream of data and deliver that stream to multiple users. Finally, we maintain our 24/7 ops mission of consolidating and coordinating all NRO satellite contacts on the AFSCN.”
Much like the 50 SW operations squadrons at Schriever, the NOPS has experienced a huge jump in operations tempo during the past 18 months.
“In a normal year we support four or five satellite launches, but in 2010 the NOPS supported 12,” Nichols said. “That’s the highest rate of operations in the squadron’s 10-year history.”
The squadron also performed 32 satellite rescues at a 99.8 percent success rate, used AFSCN resources to support three satellite de-orbits and led an innovative solution for a Missile Defense Agency interceptor mission.
Those efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
Air Force Space Command recognized NOPS with the General Richard C. Henry award as AFSPC’s Best Space Operations Squadron for 2010 in mid June.
“I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the men and women of NOPS had won the award,” said Lt. Col. Kerri Mellor, NOPS commander. “It was a landmark year for NOPS and every member of our team contributed significantly to our success. The NOPS team plays a vital role in the defense of our nation and I couldn’t be more proud of their performance.”
Nichols noted that the squadron worked through a 300 percent boost in average annual launch tempo during 2010.
“I think the launch tempo was a big part of us winning the award,” he said. “We had a major launch event, exercise or rehearsal every 10 days. What I think is more impressive is that we had both the high operations tempo and a large amount of technical work to accomplish during the year. Obviously, balancing the two showed something extraordinary.”