From space traffic monitoring to human space flight rescue, Vandenberg units provide integral support to NASA missions

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mae-Li Allison
  • Combined Force Space Component Command Public Affairs

Since 1958, the Department of Defense has provided human space flight support to NASA.  This legacy of partnership and support continues today, and has grown to include a wide joint and international military presence.  At Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the Combined Force Space Component Command (CFSCC) and its subunit the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) provide a variety of support to NASA missions, while also exemplifying how partnering with other military services and allies can benefit all.

“This is an exciting and historic time to be in the space operations business,” said Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, the CFSCC commander.  “Just last month we assisted NASA in its second successful human space flight mission to take place from U.S. soil in 11 years, and on the 20th of this month we will mark the first anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Space Force.”

The main areas the California-based CFSCC and CSpOC crews assist with during NASA human space flight missions include: recovery trajectory tracking, rapidly deployable global personnel recovery capabilities, space surveillance sensor coverage, and collision-avoidance screening.

“Our team at the CSpOC is intensely monitoring the data feeds tracking human space flight missions during the launch and recovery phases,” said Maj. Kyle Wamser, CFSCC’s chief of human space flight support.  “Once the CFSCC commander makes the call, our rescue teams stationed around the world are ready and will deploy that moment to come to the aid of the astronauts.”

The rescue team, formally known as Task Force 45 Assigned Contingency Rescue Support, is actually comprised of several smaller active-duty and Air National Guard teams based in different locations such as Florida, Hawaii, South Carolina and Texas.  Together, the aircrew and pararescue professionals remain on alert during any NASA human space flight launch or landing, prepared to fly out in HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, as well as HC-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, to rescue the astronauts.    

“There’s a lot of coordination that must go into a rescue mission so, once initiated, we at the CFSCC work hand-in-hand with the Support Operations Center at Patrick Air Force base, Fla., to provide General Burt with the highest level of situational awareness to effectively command assigned forces,” said Wamser, who is himself an HH-60 Pave Hawk pilot and Air Force reservist.  “These assets are further tied into the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and Joint Personnel Recovery Centers at U.S. combatant commands worldwide.”

In addition to the recovery trajectory tracking and rescue mission support, the CFSCC and CSpOC also provide space surveillance sensor coverage and collision-avoidance screening to NASA missions. 

“The multinational team located at the CSpOC work hand-in-hand with civil, commercial and allied partners to provide the most comprehensive understanding of the space environment as possible,” said Royal Canadian Air Force Officer Maj. Michael Lang, the CSpOC lead for the Nov. 16, 2020, SpaceX Dragon Crew-1 ‘Resilience’ Capsule mission, where a crew of three Americans and one Japanese astronaut launched to the International Space Station (ISS).  “Together, we provided Space Domain Awareness to Dragon Resilience and the ISS to avoid potential collisions with other space objects and communicated that data between NASA Johnson Space Center and other mission partners.”

“We also tracked Dragon Resilience’s trajectories as it maneuvered to the ISS, actively disseminated this information to partner sites, and communicated with the 18th Space Control Squadron, also based at Vandenberg AFB, for tracking real-time milestones such as maneuver times, docking, and status of the capsule,” added Lang.

About 20 personnel from the 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) supported the Dragon Resilience launch through Space Domain Awareness mission planning and execution from two sites, Vandenberg AFB and Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, VA.

First Lt. Morgan McCune, 18 SPCS crew commander, was also the mission planning cell chief for the Dragon Resilience mission.  In that role, he created and briefed the Space Domain Awareness mission plan for the event and led operations for launch and on-orbit custody to docking, using the experience he had already gained from supporting five previous human space flight missions.

“This was my first time leading a mission planning cell and concurrently directing live operations, and the experience was incredible,” said McCune.  “I am living part of my lifelong dream through my involvement in the space domain.”

One thing is certain during any human space flight mission; it takes a strong and collaborative team to ensure mission success.

“Everyone at the 18th Space Control Squadron plays a part that contributes to the overall success of various NASA missions,” said First Lt. Rafael Fermin, 18 SPCS standardization and evaluation flight commander.  “For instance, our orbital analysts are responsible for tasking sensors to ensure we have the highest-fidelity of information to pass on to NASA.  In 2020 alone we gave warnings to the ISS crew about two separate potential conjunctions, and they maneuvered to avoid the space debris.”

Fermin added that, as orbital safety analysts for human space flight, he and the team provide on-orbit screening and conjunction analysis for every object that docks into the ISS, and throughout each object’s mission.  The small team of about 10 orbital safety analysts for human space flight are in daily communication with the NASA Johnson Space Center.

“This is arguably the coolest profession that I have been blessed to be a part of, as it literally supports our astronauts and keeps them safe,” said Fermin.

Finally, the opportunity for CFSCC and CSpOC to support this year’s NASA human space flight missions also led to additional opportunities for allied nations to further develop their space programs.

“This was a tremendous opportunity for France to develop our interoperability with our allies as directed by our Defense Space Strategy,” said French Air and Space Force Col. Olivier Fleury, who is the French liaison officer for space at U.S. Space Command’s Multinational Space Coordination Division.  “This is also a touchstone for the space operations France is currently setting up, and we are looking forward to reiterating our space surveillance support and advancing this collaboration no later than Spring 2021, when French astronaut Thomas Pesquet is slated to be part of the CREW-2 mission.”