Space Operator Life
I thought I would take some time to provide a little update on how things are going as a space officer. It has been more than six months since I commissioned and as I have been staying in touch with my OTS classmates, I have realized we are all on very different paths. I graduated with people who have been at the base for months, who just finished tech school and are working at a desk, or who are at a console underground with their hands hovering over the big red button. I even have friends who have completed initial pilot training or are training in other rated positions. It is amazing how diverse the Air Force is and how far we scatter once we graduate from initial training.
Because of the 24/7 nature of our missions, most space officers can plan on going to crew. In another post I talked about how we have to go through tech school the local training at our first base. To recap, the first training is at Vandenberg and covers the basics of the entire career field. It teaches fundamental information from the electromagnetic spectrum, characteristics of space, or orbital mechanic to general knowledge about our career field as a whole. The second version of training is conducted at your first base. Some units have more formalized training programs while others will do their training “on-the-job” while on crew.
Satellite Vehicle Operator – Since I am at a satellite command and control base around 80% of the new officers here will learn how to become vehicle operators. Every unit has a different name for the job, but we are the ones who talk to the satellite, keep it in orbit, and make sure it is operating ‘nominally.’ Since each mission has different constellations the vehicle operator job can vary greatly, but the bread and butter of the job is the same. If your constellation is in LEO and you don’t have very many satellites, you will have short but more frequent contacts. If your satellites are in GEO and you have lots of satellites, you may have longer but fewer contacts.
Ground System Operator – It is important to note that every unit has different positions and the positions themselves change often. Some units combine all positions into one while others have had only one for the entire life of the system. In order for an operator to communicate with a satellite you will have to establish a ground link from your console or mission processors to the antenna which communicates with the satellites. This position would require familiarization with the infrastructure of your comm equipment and the procedures needed to operate it.
Payload System Operator – One of the other jobs some missions have is a payload specialist. If your mission is GPS, the payload guy would be in charge of making sure the GPS payload is fine tuned and communicating properly. Some missions have Air Force payload operators while others are contracted out or carried out by other organizations. The payload specialist will of course be different depending on the mission. One payload guy might know everything there is to know about communications while another may know everything about GPS.
Crew/Mission Commander – The mission commander is the one on the ops floor who is overall in charge of all operations on the floor. If a squadron has three vehicle operators, one ground operator, and one payload operator for a shift the mission commander would make sure they all are doing their job correctly. They can also be responsible for the contractors, mission planners, or literally anything else needed to accomplish the mission.
Mission Planners – These individuals are responsible for ensuring the overall mission is planned so the people on the floor can execute. It involves an overall understanding of the entire mission process and attention to detail to ensure all of the blocks are checked for mission accomplishment.
This is just a general idea of how a crew can be composed at any given squadron. In general crews work either 8’s or 12’s with the shift schedule being anything from 3 on/3 off, panamas (3 on, 2 off, 2 on, 3 off aka every other weekend off), to something crazy like 6 (2 days, 2 swings, 2 mids) on four off. They say that we are all going to do crew for a few months then switch to M-F for a training period for the rest of our lives due to something called “SMF” but I am sure it will blow over in a few years. In the past you would do a few years on crew then switch to M-F as you became more senior. Maybe someday I will attempt to explain the mindset behind SMF because it makes a lot of sense if it is explained properly.
I can’t speak for all squadrons, but the job itself will be a matter of learning technical information about your system and executing procedures with TO’s or checklists. While we are on shift we are expected to do the things and follow your training. There will be times when you may have to deviate from the checklists or TOs to more effectively accomplish the mission. While this may seem crazy in other career fields, it makes sense in space because of how dynamic our responses may need to be with getting highly complex systems to work properly.
Being on crew can be nice because you can really get to know your crew. Usually the size is anywhere from 2-12 people depending on the mission.