From Popular Mechanics by Joe Pappalardo
Popular Mechanics goes to source for the straight story on what it takes to operate the GPS navigation system and how the game is changing as the militarization of space heats up.
A lot of the talk about the militarization of space these days comes from people who have zero real-life military experience working with satellites.
We recently had the welcome opportunity to speak to several frontline military space operators during a trip to Petersen Air Force Base in Colorado, home to U.S. Space Command, and Schriever AFB.
The day included a joint interview with three members of the 2nd Operations Squadron, which operates the Global Position System constellation around the clock.
Theirs is a military mission with billions of civilian customers added on.
We spoke with Capt. Dustin Spafford, an Assistant Director of Operations of the squadron (which everyone at Schriever calls “two-sops”); 1st Lt Morgan Herman, an Assistant Weapons & Tactics Flight Commander focused on the payloads and ways to optimize a sat’s signal, especially during specific military operations; and Capt.
Ryan Thompson, Analyst Flight Commander, the engineer in the room who tends to the health and operation of the satellites; and the airmen's commander, Lt Col Stephen Toth.
PM: Do people understand what you do? I mean in and out of the military.
Herman: Probably the most surprising thing I came away with when I was at the Combat Air Force Weapons and Tactics Conference is that the aviation community doesn't always realize how actively we have to manage the constellation.
Or how active our role in doing space operations is.
Whether it's the public or our other military users, they tend to think of space as a magic box that you turn on and everything just works.
They don't realize necessarily the level of active management that goes into that.
PM: Is the attitude, “Hey it’s been launched and now it can just run on its own?”
Herman: A lot of that's by design, though.
We want our system to work so perfectly so much of the time that everyone just kind of takes it for granted.
That says that we're hitting that extremely high level of performance.
Toth: I'm the commander of the GPS squadron.
My mom has no idea that Google owns and operates her maps, not me.
I'm the blue dot and all that other infrastructure someone else has made.
Apple, Google, you name it.
Whether people care to understand it or not, there are ten people up on that operations floor 24/7 constantly contacting those satellites and doing analysis on board to ensure it's a no-fail mission.
Patrick H. Corkery / Lockheed Martin
PM: What are the main tools you use to fly a satellite?
Thompson: We use a tool that takes in all the telemetry and the vectors so you can say, this the way this vehicle is moving, the way it's accelerating.
With that, you can essentially plot a curve that says, these are your bounds.
It's moving this way through your bounds.
As it's coming toward this line we'll put an additional velocity vector that says, move it this direction.
Then you can see that new prediction.
We keep things within plus-or-minus two degrees of where it should be.
We constantly do that over time.
You're looking at approximately a year for some vehicles, depending on the way it crosses the Earth...
It could be two years, it could be a little shorter.
We have one vehicle that almost doesn't want to leave its area, just the way it moves it kind of just wiggles and just loves staying right in the middle of its lane.
PM: How would news of a threat to a satellite reach you on the operations floor?
Toth: There's a significant amount of collaboration we have with the National Space Defense Center (also located at Schreiver AFB –eds.) -
They're charged with protecting all of our stuff once it's in orbit.
They're the main coordination point for that, but any situation like that would be a huge collaboration between them up in the NSDC, myself, the weapons and tactics flight people, and then Capt. Thompson with that engineering expertise that they have to make sure we don't accidentally break a satellite trying to keep it safe.
PM: Do you guys wargame that kind of stuff?
Toth: Sure, it’s part of our advance training.
We take realistic scenarios that are provided by external organizations and basically say, this is things that could, in theory, happen.
Then we start testing out crews on how they would react to certain situations or scenarios as they play out.
We're constantly integrating a greater level of knowledge that we're gaining overtime into our training scenarios and then our crews can actually practice those scenarios.
A lot of it is actually thinking through those scenarios and getting people to realizing that we're no longer sitting in a benign environment.
Inside Lockheed Martin's GPS III facility
PM: It’s a new mindset, treating space like a contested environment, somewhere where the spacecraft are under threat of attack.
Spafford: That's a lot of what's Air Force Space Command has been getting after over the last few years.
It's getting more and more after the training on how crews think.
It's nothing that ten years ago my mind was thinking about.
We were just thinking, “Let's just do the constellation, right? Why would anyone come after me?”
The reality is that Air Force Space Command started to see a concern and so that's why we're starting to change the way we train.
It's really more about changing the way we think.
Making you into a space warfighter is a hard thing to do.
I've had three deployments behind me.
I've been in Afghanistan, I've had more mortars coming at me.
You know when you're at war, right?
You sit there and there's no mistaking that explosion that just happened 100 yards away from you.
In space, it's way more difficult to understand exactly what warfare might look like.
By no means am I suggesting we are there, right?
That's for the generals and everybody else that's looking at the bigger picture.
But we as a team need to start thinking about our system and how we protect and defend it.
In 2018, the U.S. Air Force is expected to begin launching the most powerful GPS satellites ever designed and built – GPS III.
Today, GPS III satellites are in full production at Lockheed Martin’s GPS III Processing Facility near Denver, a $128 million, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, itself designed in a virtual reality environment to maximize satellite production effectiveness and efficiency.
A Busy Future in Orbit
PM: Space is busy right now and getting even busier.
Besides the increase in other traffic, there are dozens of new GPS III satellites coming online in the future.
And the Pentagon mandate is not to just fly them, but protect them from threats.
How are you preparing for the increase in workload?
Spafford: Well, if you're planning on being busier, then you need to come up with ways to get every process as lean as possible.
That's exactly what we're doing in the squadron, trying to get as lean and mean and fast as we humanly possibly can.
That enables us to better serve the customer-which is the world, I guess you could say.
What we're starting to do is take a new approach to these things and saying, "Okay, well let's get the contractor in here. Let's put a team of smart people together from my weapons and tactics shop who develops a big brain plan on what they want to do with the satellite. We get our analysis shop, which is like Capt. Thompson's flight, and they start developing a plan."
PM: What’s a good example of getting leaner?
Thompson: One of the best examples: During a disposal burn, normally we only will fire the engines on the vehicle for an hour at a time, but Lockheed Martin looked into it and they thought that we could probably do it for two hours at a time.
We were already moving the vehicle into its disposal orbit, it was going to be out of the way of everything, we were satisfying all of Strategic Command’s requirements.
It was going to be completely safe.
We decided to burn for two hours, which reduces the number of burns we have to do by 50 percent.
It was conducted successfully.
We used all the fuel on the vehicle and now it's reduced the disposal timeline for all of our vehicles by about 50 percent.
PM: When did this happen?
Thompson: Just last week we finished the final burn.
Spafford: So it's really interesting stuff.
We hadn't fired the five-pound kick thruster since the vehicle was initially launched in the orbit.
How long was that vehicle?
Thompson: Yes, sir.
Spafford: In 18 years the five-pound thruster had never been used.
Well, we said, let’s try it.
So we tried it and it worked.
It's things like that, that we can start putting our knowledge to or applying our time toward that enables the whole crew force to learn more.
Whether they stay in GPS for their entire time or they go to another satellite operation squadron, the basic mechanics of satellites are basically the same.
And Lockheed Martin can now take this information back to where they manufacture the actual satellites to build better on-orbit handbooks, so that when we get them we can know more about what we can actually do with it, and they can actually start building out better satellites.
PM: I see a lot of hands-on tending to sats here, but I also hear about automation that can help operators monitor the health of the spacecraft and operate bigger constellations.
Spafford: It's not going to take the human out of the loop, but what it does is, it starts to scan more lines of code by itself and start to flag and identify and pull those things out and really make the operator identify them quicker…
When we talk about doing a contact on a satellite, it takes about 45 minutes.
We start to increase the speed you can get more contacts done throughout the day than you normally would otherwise.
It's a way that we're already starting to get after doing satellite contacts for our larger constellation.
PM: Is being faster something that has to happen to handle the increase in constellation size?
Spafford: By freeing up some of that time, by automating some things, it will just make us a more refined organization as a whole, which is our overall intent.
It also makes us better.
It carries a message to the warfighters.
They can know what we can do.
When OCX (a ground station software upgrade – eds) does come online, it's designed to be able to have 62 PRN's, which means 62 satellites healthy at one point in time.
Someday they will have 62 satellites, potentially, on orbit.
We can't do that right now.
PM: You guys are operating equipment that you’ll never touch or even see.
From your perspective, what's the relationship you have with these satellites?
Thompson: You do get to a point where you think of each of these vehicles, that they have their own personalities almost.
Different ways you have to think about different vehicles, even within the same block.
(Sat upgrade versions are called blocks, and GPS has a handful of different versions now in orbit - eds.)
You may have this one does this certain thing sometimes.
Or this one's batteries are a certain way and they charge a certain way and so we have to be aware of that.
Herman: Working on the payload side - that's my normal crew position when I'm not working in weapons and tactics - I'm essentially listening to every one of the satellites at the same time.
Being in a room where you're essentially listening to 31 voices at once, you start to distinguish the differences between each one.
Some satellites require a little bit more attention when it comes to their navigation uploads because of the way their clocks work.
(Time is as important as position data, and more users rely on GPS sats for their ability to sync with atomic clocks.–ed.s)
Some of them are just perfect performers.
You can leave them on for three or four days at a time and they'd be great.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the GPS III SV01 mission from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on 23 December 2018, at 13:51 UTC (08:51 EST).
GPS III SV01 is United States Air Force’s first Global Positioning System III space vehicle (SV).
Due to mission requirements, SpaceX did not attempted to land Falcon 9’s first stage (Block 5 B1054) after launch.
Airmen Trained for a New Economy
PM: For young airmen, this has to be a good time to get involved in space operations.
Thompson: Best time ever.
PM: When you look at your future career, you must realize that what you’re learning will have a lot of appeal in the commercial world.
Do you think you’ll stay in the Air Force?
Thompson: I think it's a great path both within and still involved with the military.
PM: Okay, ‘senator.’ Who media trained this guy? He’s good.
Spafford: (Chuckling.) No one.
Thompson: In our bowling alley area we have something we call the Wall of Fame.
These are a lot of people that were in 2 Operational Squadron at some point, and all of these faces are familiar because they all still stayed within the community.
We have civilians that were here as captains who are now 25-, 30-year civilians within the space GPS community who worked with our contractors that have been here for 25 years.
I think it is a great time to be in space because there is so much going on with it.
But I think you've seen that before; space is somewhere that kind of captures the imagination so people stay within it.
Herman: The beauty of being in space right now is I have yet to come into work and be bored.
From a quality of service standpoint, I know for the next 10, 15, 20 years - if I decide to stay in the military that long - I will always come into work and face a new challenge.
I'll always work with some of the most top-notch people that the Air Force has to offer.
As long as I can keep doing that, I'd love to stay in space.
- Popular Mechanics : Inside the Locked Rooms Where They Protect GPS / A New Way To Build Atomic Clocks Could Make GPS Even Better
- ABC : Global positioning system is our best navigation network, but this may change in five years
- Phys : Scientists one step closer to a clock that could replace GPS and Galileo
- SpaceNews : Lawmakers to form bipartisan caucus to promote the economic, national security benefits of GPS / Air Force experiment NTS-3 could point the way to the next generation of GPS
- GPS World Mag : Furuno to launch single-band GNSS receivers for 5G / First light: Broadcast of L1C by GPS III
- ZDNet : GPS inventors win prize for greatest engineering innovation
- GeoGarage blog : US Air Force set to launch 1st next-generation GPS ...