By Randy Saunders
50th Space Wing historian
Last fall, the Air Force Satellite Control Network underwent a change that hadn’t occurred in nearly 18 years — the decommissioning and removal of a remote tracking station. The Colorado Tracking Station, call sign PIKE, began its history in the 1980s. Located on Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, PIKE sat on a semi-arid mountain plateau at an altitude of more than 6,100 feet. Until the construction of PIKE, all remote tracking stations were near coastlines or on islands, making them vulnerable to jamming. PIKE was also unique in that its communication systems were hard-wired into the control node at Schriever AFB, providing additional security.
PIKE was built by Ford Aerospace and was the first tracking station built as an automated remote tracking station. Supporting both polar and equatorial orbiting satellites, the Colorado Tracking Station played an important role in AFSCN operations and until 1996, when its operating hours were reduced, was among the busiest sites in the network.
During the next several months, the 50th Space Wing History office will publish a series of articles to highlight the history of the AFSCN.
A brief history of the AFSCN — Part I
Human desire to reach the stars is as old as civilization itself. Philosophers, scientists and engineers have looked to the heavens and considered ways to explore the galaxies. The Chinese developed solid-fueled gunpowder rockets by the first millennium A.D. and by 1045, gunpowder rockets were an important element of their military arsenal. According to legend, a minor Chinese official named Wan Hu even attempted, sometime during the 16th century, to launch himself to the moon using 47 rockets strapped to his chair. Centuries passed before humans developed the technologies to take the first real steps toward reaching space. By the early 20th century, pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard had advanced the science of rocketry to new summits. Von Braun’s rocketry work led to development of the German V 2 rocket, considered the foundation for today’s modern rockets. World War II brought not only rockets, but jet engines, radar and many other technological advances to the world. Tying those developing technologies together to foster exploration and exploitation of space would become the life’s work of many more scientists and engineers. Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a “space race” to develop rockets capable of carrying artificial satellites into Earth orbit. The development of those rockets was also essential to the on-going work in both nations to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons at intercontinental ranges.
In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Air Force activated the Western Development Division. President Dwight Eisenhower announced the first U.S. scientific satellite program and WDD secretly initiated Weapons System 117L, the first Air Force satellite program. In 1956, the U.S. government awarded Lockheed Missiles and Space Company a contract for development of the country’s first reconnaissance satellite, which eventually carried the top secret name “Corona.” On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. The Soviets followed one month later with the launch of Sputnik II, which carried a dog named Laika (Barker), the first living creature placed into Earth orbit. The United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, in February 1958, followed by Vanguard 1 on March 1, 1958.
Corona, which first operated under the “Discoverer” scientific cover, originally was planned for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and would be supported by satellite tracking facilities around the world. Some of those stations were already in place on Pacific islands to support missile tests. By 1958, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (renamed from the Western Development Division) determined that additional tracking stations were required and added Vandenberg Air Force Base and Point Mugu, California; Ka’ena Point, Hawaii; and Kodiak, Alaska, to the network. The launch site for Discoverer/Corona was also changed from Cape Canaveral to Vandenberg AFB. Discoverer I launched Feb. 28, 1959, and served as a test platform for guidance and booster systems. It transmitted telemetry intermittently until it de-orbited March 17, 1959.
The Air Force quickly realized it needed an organization dedicated to on-orbit commanding and controlling of satellites. On April 6, 1959, the 6594th Test Wing activated at Lockheed’s facility in Palo Alto, California, and the Air Force Satellite Control Network was born. At its activation, the 6594th included three operating locations — Edwards Air Force Base, California; Chiniak, Alaska; and Annette Island, Alaska. Later in the year, stations at Vandenberg AFB, California; Ka’ena Point, Hawaii; and New Boston, New Hampshire, joined the wing. In March 1960, the wing moved to Sunnyvale, California, and in June of that year, the installation, designated Air Force Satellite Control Center, opened. Later, the installation would be redesignated Onizuka Air Force Station. The wing was redesignated 6594th Aerospace Test Wing in 1961 and reassigned to the newly created Space Systems Division.
While the United States advanced its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, it also continued work on its satellite programs, especially the Corona reconnaissance satellite. On Aug. 19, 1960, a specially equipped C-119 aircraft and its crew conducted the first aerial recovery of a film canister ejected from a Corona satellite — Discoverer XIV. That satellite had acquired 3,000 feet of imagery covering more than 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. While the Discoverer program ended in 1962 after 38 satellite launches, the Corona program continued operations in secrecy for another 10 years.
Meanwhile, expansion and modernization of the satellite tracking stations continued as the United States. began developing communications and weather satellite systems. By the end of 1961, the network consisted of the main node at Sunnyvale and tracking stations at Vandenberg, Kodiak Island, Ka’ena Point, New Boston, Thule, Annette Island, Fort Greely, and by 1962, on the Seychelles island of Mahe in the Indian Ocean. By June 1962, the network was able to support multiple satellite operations. Network operators supported as many as 10 programs, including their primary mission, Corona.
The AFSCN gained responsibility for all ICBM and space tracking activities in 1963, and its organization and operations continued to expand. Recognizing the need for a new organizational construct to meet the growing requirements of the network, the Air Force established the Air Force Satellite Control Facility as an organization in June 1965 and named Col. Walter H. Hedrick Jr. as its commander. The AFSCF operated remote tracking stations around the world and conducted satellite telemetry, tracking, and commanding tasks now performed by the 50th Space Wing’s space operations squadrons.
The Guam Tracking Station opened in September 1965 as the first mobile facility, though permanent structures were soon constructed. The Los Angeles-based AFSCF was comprised of a support squadron and detachment at Sunnyvale, the tracking stations, and the 6594th Recovery Control Group, which was charged with the primary task of recovering Corona satellite payloads. The group also conducted rescue missions in the Pacific and supported NASA’s Apollo space launches. The 6594th Recovery Control Group inactivated in 1986 after recovering tens of thousands of film canisters ejected from once-classified satellites, such as Corona, Hexagon and Gambit.
The next article will cover expansion of the network and technological advances in 1970s and 1980s.