Commentary by Lt. Col. Michael Manor
1st Space Operations Squadron commander
It was a fitting punctuation to the end of the satellite’s short but distinguished career. The satellite re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere April 30.
The ceremony was also a way for the 1st and 7th Space Operations Squadrons and the Space Development and Test Directorate at the Space and Missiles Systems Center to pay tribute to the satellite they operated and more importantly loved. These strong emotional ties can be attributed to the fact that this satellite represented much more to those who were its caretakers. In short, TacSat-3 was a true American success story, a classic underdog and overachiever, inspiring those lucky enough to develop and operate it.
On May 19, 2009, the $88 million TacSat-3 came to life with a mere whisper of the Minotaur I rocket that carried it to low earth orbit as a rather unassuming Air Force Research Laboratory research and development satellite. Nearly three years later, the satellite will leave us with a virtual roar having changed how many in Air Force Space Command, and beyond, view satellite acquisitions as well as fundamentally altering the face of mission operations in 1 and 7 SOPS. TacSat-3 demonstrated satellites could be developed in a more low-cost, rapid fashion by using a common bus with the ability to plug in a variety of payloads. This strategy proved extremely effective not only for TacSat-3 operations, but also paved the way for the Operationally Responsive Space-1 satellite to go from a concept to providing critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to U.S. Central Command in only 33 months. TacSat-3’s impact was even more pronounced in 1 and 7 SOPS as the squadrons shifted their mission focus from providing residual operations for Defense Satellite Program and Global Positioning System satellites to operating cutting edge intelligence satellites, a mission previously reserved for the National Reconnaissance Office.
TacSat-3 also provides commentary that American ingenuity remains alive and well in the space domain. Developers were able to build the satellite so robust it nearly tripled its original life expectancy of one year to just shy of three. As a result of its extended life, U.S. Strategic Command was able to transition the satellite from research and development to operational service. The results remain nothing short of stunning as TacSat-3 demonstrated the versatility of its hyper spectral imaging payload time and time again. The payload’s ability to delineate between natural and manmade materials proved instrumental in providing intelligence on everything from detecting camouflage to locating certain types of crop growth. In the end, TacSat-3 distinguished itself in the wartime missions of all geographic combatant commands as well as humanitarian efforts, such as Operation Tomadachi during the nuclear emergency in Japan and the Gulf oil spill cleanup in the United States.
The men and women of 1 and 7 SOPS and the Space Development and Test Directorate will no doubt miss TacSat-3 because of its consistently reliable service. But, it goes much deeper than that. TacSat-3’s vast achievements supporting global operations, despite a rather modest price tag, short life expectancy, and research and development origins, should provide inspiration to all who love the story of an underdog winning against all odds. TacSat-3 is a success story because it’s a reflection of American values that a bit of ingenuity and hard work can enable us all to achieve great things no matter what lot we are given in life.