By Tech. Sgt. Wes Wright
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In the ever-changing realm of space operations, adapting, evolving and innovating are key themes for the 50th Space Wing, the epicenter of space.
While the entire wing is tasked with innovation, one unit could be referred to as the tip of the innovation spear: the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron.
The 3rd SES’s mission statement is, “Innovate to operationalize space and cyber capabilities to advance America’s space superiority.”
“What we do is bridge that gap between a research and development project or satellite and an operational capability,” said 1st Lt. Steven Dillman, 3rd SES, operations support deputy flight commander. “It costs a lot of money to get things into space, so people have ideas but they don’t get to take it to that next step. We help them take that next step.”
The squadron is the Air Force’s premier organization for space-based demonstrations and experiments.
Last year, the squadron completed testing and experiments on the Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space satellite. ANGELS was an experimental satellite that tested the boundaries of orbital mechanics and space system capabilities.
This year, two satellite systems occupy much of the squadron’s efforts. The first is the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter Augmented Geosynchronous Experiment. EAGLE is an experimental satellite developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. EAGLE carried several different payloads into space, one of which was Mycroft. The latter is a space situational awareness and fourth generation inspector satellite. Among other things, Mycroft explores ways to enhance space object characterization and navigation capabilities, and the designs and data processing methods for enhancing space situational awareness.
“EAGLE and Mycroft are kind of like brother and sister,” Dillman said. “They are part of a dual purpose experiment, focused on advancing space situational awareness and guidance, navigation and control capabilities. We’re asking and answering questions like, ‘how do you fly these rendezvous and proximity missions?’ Mycroft is a follow-on to ANGELS with greater capability.”
Tech. Sgt. Joseph Vazquez, 3rd SES operations support flight chief, said the squadron’s goal is to develop innovative new tactics, techniques and procedures to enhance their operational capabilities.
“We look at lessons learned and try to minimize our deficiencies and maximize our efficiencies,” he said. “If we are to operate in a contested environment, we need to be able to act very quickly and correctly.”
Dillman said the squadron is unique in that there are no templates or technical orders for their missions.
“The wing’s mission talks about evolving space warfighting superiority through innovative operations,” he said. “For us, since everything we do is brand new, we can’t help but innovate. We become the tip of that spear.”
According to Vazquez, experimenting on satellite systems not only helps develop TTPs for the U.S.’s use, it also allows them to replicate potential threats.
“Not only are we pushing technology forward for our capability, but we are able to take today’s friendly assets and replicate what tomorrow’s adversarial assets might represent,” he said. “For everything we discover we can do, we ask ‘how can this be countered, and what’s our counter to the counter?’”
With the magnitude of their operations fully realized, the squadron is selective about the Airmen allowed to join their ranks and they hand-pick each hire.
Every new mission is a problem to solve. Airmen have to have a deep systems knowledge, and a sound understanding of orbital mechanics among other space operations aspects.
Vazquez and Dillman both said the caliber of 3rd SES Airmen leads to a high level of morale and camaraderie.
“I’ve never been in a unit where morale was so high,” Dillman said. “Each of us knows just how important this is to our nation and we love our work. When you take talented people and combine that with a love for what we do and the nation, you can rest assured space is in good hands.”
“We all have a sense of the big picture,” Vazquez added. “What we’re doing is going to be used for decades. We are setting up space operations and operators to be elite and well trained. That is the foundation of winning in space.”
The 3rd SES’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed as the X-37B Operations Crew was chosen as the Air Force Association’s 2018 Best Space Operations Crew. The award is given for the best overall space operations crew in the United States Air Force.
According to Dillman, each new experiment comes with challenges in addition to the awards.
“I love seeing people come in with no prior knowledge of rendezvous and proximity ops, and watching them get to the point where they can solve problems on their own,” he said. “It’s so rewarding watching the impact of what we do, knowing we are driving the future.”
Vazquez is confident his unit and the Air Force is ready for any challenge in space.
“We are pioneering things today that will have impacts decades into the future,” he said. “I can’t tell you every detail about what we do, but I can tell you this: as far as space is concerned, the United States is ready and able.”