By 2nd Lt. Darren Domingo
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
(Editor’s Note: “The Sun Never Sets” is a series dedicated to highlighting our Geographically Separated Units’ team members, their contributions to the mission and some of the unique aspects of their sometimes remote locations)
When kids decide their careers, there are those who want nothing to do with what their parents did.
For young Joel Chalmers however, growing up in the Air Force Satellite Control Network, he knew space was where he was headed.
Capt. Joel Chalmers, Vandenberg Tracking Station flight commander, lived most of his life following his father through his career as a contractor in the AFSCN.
Chalmers’ father, Joel Chalmers Sr., originally served in the Navy, but separated after the Vietnam War. Since he thoroughly enjoyed living in Guam, he found his first AFSCN job at the tracking station there.
“I grew up there, it was a family kind of atmosphere, and I knew a lot of the guys that worked there,” said Chalmers. “Today, a lot of the guys here at VTS, or COOK, knew me as a little kid when I was out there. A lot of people who work in the AFSCN kind of stay in the AFSCN.”
One of the people that knew him was Jon Sanchez, 2nd Space Operations Squadron system administration and communications security responsible officer.
“I definitely remember young Joel Chalmers,” said Sanchez. “His father Joel Sr. and I worked in the telemetry section at Guam tracking station as part of the AFSCN. I remember his dad brought him up to the site before the soccer games. He was born four months before my eldest daughter.”
COOK, a flight under the 21st Space Operations Squadron, is one of seven AFSCN sites around the world.
21 SOPS is also responsible for all operations, maintenance and personnel performing AFSCN operations at Diego Garcia Tracking Station, British Indian Ocean Territory; Guam Tracking Station, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; and Hawaii Tracking Station, Kaena Point, Hawaii.
The AFSCN performs telemetry, tracking and commanding functions for more than 175 satellites in support of more than 10 Department of Defense and National organizations.
“Basically, that means the satellites that the U.S. government and the rest of DOD operate up in space, we support on a daily basis,” said Chalmers.
Chalmers explained the other AFSCN sites perform the same operations as does COOK, but what makes COOK unique is they also perform pre-launch satellite capabilities.
“We point down to the launch pads and to the vehicle bays and talk to satellites before they go into orbit to ensure they’re compatible with AFSCN,” said Chalmers.
Life at COOK is unique because only two military personnel and about 40 contractors operate the AFSCN site. There are a few other partners as well, including the California Air National Guard’s 148th Space Operations Squadron, which works alongside the 4th Space Operations Squadron to operate the Advanced Satellite Mission Control Subsystem.
Chalmers had much to say about the work ethic and prowess of his team.
“Our day shift averages about 25 years of experience,” said Chalmers. “Swing shift has 33 years of experience and our mid-shift averages about 16 years of AFSCN experience.”
There’s a difference between having a military-run organization versus a contract-run organization, explained Chalmers.
“These guys stay in the AFSCN,” he said. “They start at stations like Diego Garcia or Thule, the more remote stations. They’ll spend time out there gaining experience, and as jobs open up throughout the network, they usually transfer through.”
Chalmers insisted having seasoned contractors is essential to mission success.
During his tour at Schriever, Chalmers held six different jobs in four different squadrons. He said it was tough to have continuity of experience. However, that continuity is possible when contractors are at the helm.
“These guys truly are the experts of the AFSCN. They’ve been through it from the ground up,” said Chalmers.
Vandenberg Tracking Station also maintains alternate facilities for 2, 3, 4 and 22 SOPS.
COOK currently sits as a GSU on a hill a few miles away from their main facility, the 21 SOPS located on Vandenberg Air Force Base.
From their work space, team COOK can see out to the Pacific Ocean and sometimes see ships crossing from L.A. to San Francisco.
“You can see the oil rigs up there off the Santa Barbara coast,” said Chalmers. “Temperatures are almost the same all-year-round. It’s really beautiful.”
Chalmers graduated from the University of Nevada Las Vegas AFROTC in 2009. When filling out his “dream sheet,” space was available, so space obviously became number one on his list.
Chalmers became familiar with detachment commanders in Guam by attending Christmas parties with his father as a child. From AFROTC until today, he looked to them as mentors in his journey to becoming a space officer.
“It was quite a shock, a pleasant one at that, to see him arrive at Vandenberg Tracking Station as a young lieutenant,” laughed Sanchez. “The last time I saw him he was pushing maybe four feet, but now he’s over six feet tall and until that day I always saw him in his soccer uniform and shin guards. I knew he had bright future ahead of him.”
Chalmers said that some of his favorite memories were hanging out with his dad at work and bringing him lunch. In the recreational room, they would polish their pool skills during lunch time.
Aside from on-base amenities, Chalmers was also able to go with his dad to see important areas in the tracking station.
“Going out there and seeing the radome for the first time was pretty cool,” he said. “The pure size of the radome and the antenna was really inspiring to understand what space [operations] bring to the world.”
Since Chalmers and his father share the same name, it posed a humorous issue for AFSCN conference calls.
“On our conference calls or operations calls, we have all of our sites around the world call in and give a status of operations on our antenna,” said Chalmers. “One day my dad was giving the operations brief for Guam and it was confusing for Lt. Col. Hondo Scott (previous 21 SOPS commander) to know which Joel he was talking to. He decided to call me ‘LJ’ for ‘Little Joel.’”
The nickname stuck.
Last year, Chalmers’ father retired from the AFSCN as chief of operations in Guam, a year after he arrived at 21 SOPS. Chalmers’ parents are still living on Guam. They love Guam, Chalmers explained.
Chalmers met his wife, Melinda, who is Chamorro (a native of Guam), after graduating high school. Together, they have a two-year-old daughter, Ashlynn.
COOK may be known for supporting satellites for our nation, but it seems they support family legacies as well.