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Three SOPS LEO team snares first operating turn
by Scott Prater for Schriever Sentinel
Schriever AFB CO (SPX) Jan 31, 2012

Air Force officials launch a United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Medium rocket carrying the fourth Wideband Global SATCOM satellite Jan. 19, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Wideband Global SATCOM provides anytime, anywhere communication for the warfighter through broadcast, multicast, and point to point connections. (U.S. Air Force photo/Patrick Corkery).

During his first week of space training years ago, Staff Sgt. Brandon Cosper admits it was difficult to visualize exactly what was happening. As he watched lines of red, yellow and green telemetry data run across his computer screen he understood they represented actions and that operators were actually controlling a satellite on orbit. But, what that vehicle looked like, how it was moving and the commands it was acting upon were somewhat of a muddled mystery.

That's one reason 3rd Space Operations Squadron leaders initiated a Launch and Early Orbit program: enabling operators to gain invaluable knowledge about vehicles and then serve as subject-matter experts upon their return to Schriever.

"It's a once in a lifetime event to be on the console when a satellite launches," said Capt. Joseph Reynolds-Grant, 3 SOPS LEO team lead for the Wideband Global SATCOM satellite-4 launch, which occurred Jan. 19. "To see that satellite inside the high bay at Boeing's engineering facility and talk to the scientists who constructed it gives you a whole new perspective."

The vehicle will join three other satellites which make up the WGS constellation. Wideband Global SATCOM satellites provide secure high-rate data communications links to the president, the secretary of defense, theater commanders and strategic and tactical forces worldwide.

Cosper and Reynolds-Grant were joined by 1st Lts. Robyn DeBray and Brandan Ward to make up the 3 SOPS LEO team for WGS-4, a unit that performs all of the commanding needed to activate the satellite, maneuver it to its operational location and test it for operational acceptance by Air Force Space Command.

Inside Boeing's engineering facility in El Segundo, Calif., the LEO team worked alongside Boeing contractors to control WGS-4 the moment it separated from its launch vehicle.

Cosper began by uploading software and powering up components.

"I was the first person to operate the vehicle," he said. "That was big for me because I retrained into the space career field."

The team made a couple of trips to southern California. Following an arduous selection process, where operators were presented with a scenario and asked to analyze and propose solutions during a single day of testing, the team traveled to the Boeing facility last summer to undergo training and rehearsal.

That's when they toured the facility and were introduced not only to WGS-4, but follow-on vehicles WGS-5 and 6.

"The thing is just huge," Cosper said. "I mean, its solar-array wing span is slightly smaller than a 747's. Knowing you're one of the only people in the squadron to have laid eyes on it is a surreal feeling."

Getting a chance to go behind the scenes and learning the steps it takes to get a vehicle prepared for launch proved to be an enlightening experience for the LEO team.

"There is no better experience for understanding how a satellite works," said Lt. Col. Gregory Karahalis, 3 SOPS director of operations. "The four folks who are in California now have demonstrated themselves to be really sharp WGS vehicle operators. They really got deep into how each of the subsystems work. And we know from the experience of our LEO team members of previous launches, that no one knows these satellites better than they do.

"They become the most effective operators we have because they really understand what a specific telemetry point on a computer screen means, why it is the way it is and if there were any glitches along the way. They hold that knowledge with them as we transfer to operations and start performing the mission."

The team will continue to operate WGS-4 for an unspecified amount of time as it reaches its orbital testing slot. While working alongside some of the world's brightest rocket scientists, they recognize the magnitude of the mission at hand.

"Every member of this team realizes the importance of this assignment," Reynolds-Grant said. "If we don't do this right then the satellite won't be able to do the mission it's designed to."


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