By 1st Lt. Stacy Glaus
21st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The 21st Space Wing closed the Air Force Space Surveillance System due to resource constraints caused by sequestration, marking the end of its 52 years of service to the Space Situational Awareness mission, Oct. 1.
The Air Force Space Surveillance System was designed to transmit a “fence” of radar energy vertically into space to detect all objects passing through that fence. It operated from three transmitters and six receiver stations located along the 33rd parallel in the southern portion of the United States.
The three transmitter sites were located at Jordan Lake, Ala.; Lake Kickapoo, Texas; and Gila River, Ariz.
The six receivers were located at Tattnall, Ga.; Hawkinsville, Ga.; Silver Lake, Miss.; Red River, Ark.; Elephant Butte, N.M.; and San Diego, Calif.
“The AFSSS mission was a cutting edge system when it was initially developed,” said Col. John Shaw, 21st Space Wing commander. “Even to this day it complemented our SSA missions throughout the world, but due to sequestration, the decision was made to reconfigure some of our other assets and deactivate the AFSSS.”
The radar had three distinct processes which were performed by three different organizations. The 20th Space Control Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., oversaw the radar transmitter and receiver sites and also collected the observations. Observations from these sites were sent to the 20th SPCS, Detachment 1 at Dahlgren, Va., where the data was processed. Finally, the 614th Air and Space Operations Center, Detachment 1 at Dahlgren, analyzed the AFSSS data and distributed observations to the Joint Space Operations Center located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The two receiver sites at Tattnall and Silver Lake were deactivated in April of this year. The remaining sites, including the 20th SPCS, Det. 1, deactivated Oct. 1.
With the exception of the 20th SPCS, Det. 1, all sites were staffed by contract personnel from Five Rivers Services. Government crews and resources from 20 SPCS, Det. 1, have been realigned under the 614th AOC, Det. 1.
Modified operating modes at Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier AFS, N.D., and the space surveillance radar at Eglin AFB, Fla., as well as other 21st Space Wing SSA sensors, allowed for the discontinuation of AFSSS operations while maintaining solid SSA.
While network performance studies are ongoing, initial indications show better than expected performance of the Space Surveillance Network since discontinuing operations of AFSSS, and most metrics are indicating no noticeable impact. Additionally, Air Force Space Command will see a cost savings from the AFSSS de-activation of more than $14 million per year, beginning in Fiscal Year 2014.
As part of the AFSSS closing process Shaw and Chief Master Sgt. Richard Redman, 21st Space Wing command chief, visited one of the sites before its closure.
“It was an honor to be able to go and visit the contractors working at the Elephant Butte (N.M.) site,” said Shaw. “Some of these people have worked on the AFSSS their entire careers and it has served us well for the past 52 years. We were especially grateful we could go there and thank the crew for their dedication in person.”
As the sun set on the final day of operations Sept. 30, AFSSS sites lowered the U.S. flag that flew over their locations one final time. The flag was folded and then presented to each site manager.
A formal ceremony, marking the closure of all sites and deactivation of 20th SPCS, Det. 1 was also held in Dahlgren, Va. The ceremony included a special guidon flag-casing ceremony, which is a military tradition used to recognize units that have deactivated or moved. The guidon was sent to the parent unit, the 20th SPCS located at Eglin AFB, Fla., for historical preservation.
“The contributions of the fence for 52 years, coupled with the dedication of the men and women who maintained and analyzed its data is a remarkable accomplishment,” said Capt. Roland Rainey, commander, 614th AOC, Det. 1.
Oct. 1 meant more than just a day to take down a flag; it was also a day to celebrate the AFSSS’s history.
“While we say ‘farewell’ to the AFSSS and its contributions to the Space Situational Awareness mission, it is equally important to remember all the operators, analysts and contractors, both military and civilian, who met the space race challenge over the years,” said Rainey.
For some of those members who devoted their careers to the AFSSS mission, Oct. 1 was a bittersweet day.
Kenneth St. Clair, 20th SPCS Det. 1 site supervisor and now the 614th AOC Det. 1 supervisory information technology specialist, has worked the AFSSS mission for more than 30 years. He experienced many unit name changes throughout his tenure but the mission always stayed the same. This time, that mission will change as well.
“(The closing ceremony) signified the end of 20th SPCS, Det. 1,” said St. Clair. “It’s going to be different but we will keep moving on.”
But not all sad news came out of these closing ceremonies. One member — or perhaps ‘mascot’ is a better term — seemed to create a bright spot to the closure of the AFSSS story.
His name — Grumpy.
Grumpy is a black and white stray dog that decided to call the Gila River space surveillance site home nearly four years ago. Too scared to approach the crew working at the site, Grumpy was never able to become ‘friends’ with the crew. The crew members still cared for and fed him, nonetheless.
As the AFSSS sites approached their closure date of Oct. 1, many people were afraid Grumpy would be left at the site, uncared for and alone. That all changed when one of the crew members was finally able to warm up to Grumpy. The member has since adopted him and Grumpy has a new home.