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Vandenberg space squadron comes of age

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Lt. Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, gives a tour of the 21 SOPS complex during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Lt. Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, gives a tour of the 21 SOPS complex during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The Vandenberg Honor Guard posts the colors outside of the 21 SOPS complex during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The Vandenberg Honor Guard posts the colors outside of the 21 SOPS complex during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Lt Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, talks about the heritage of the 21 SOPS during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Lt Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, talks about the heritage of the 21 SOPS during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Lt. Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, talks about the heritage of the 21 SOPS during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Lt. Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, talks about the heritage of the 21 SOPS during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Col. Samuel McNiel, 61st Air Base Group commander and former 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, talks about the heritage of the 21 SOPS during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Col. Samuel McNiel, 61st Air Base Group commander and former 21st Space Operations Squadron commander, talks about the heritage of the 21 SOPS during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- 21st Space Operations Squadron members sing 'Happy Birthday' during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- 21st Space Operations Squadron members sing 'Happy Birthday' during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The current and former commanders of the 21st Space Operations Squadron but a birthday cake during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The current and former commanders of the 21st Space Operations Squadron but a birthday cake during a birthday celebration for the squadron here, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Active since 1991, the 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- This Friday, Oct. 5, marks the 21st birthday of the 21st Space Operations Squadron with a birthday bash and open house at the Ellison Onizuka facility here.

"This is a coming of age in any man's life," announced Lt. Col. Michael Wulfestieg, 21 SOPS commander. "This party is meant to celebrate our past accomplishments, while highlighting our future endeavors through the growth of technology and those relationships that are built with other government agencies."

Shrouded in mystery since 1961, 21 SOPS was and currently is an integral part of the intelligence community supporting Department of Defense, NASA, and NATO spacecraft. Despite the fact they belong to the 50th Space Wing, at Schriever AFB in Colorado Springs, Colo., 21 SOPS has a proud heritage in California.

According to the 21 SOPS factsheet, the organization started out as the "Blue Cube" in Sunnyvale, Calif. with support from Lockheed Martin. 21 SOPS moved to Vandenberg on Sept. 15, 2011 after Onizuka Air Force Station was closed.

When asked why the unit was not relocated to Colorado Springs, Wulfestieg stated, "We will always be on the West Coast. The weather and the people are great and it just so happens that this is a great place to conduct satellite operations."

With the recent declassification of the CORONA satellite imagery reconnaissance program, the public is now able to catch a glimpse into some of the clandestine missions 21 SOPS proudly contributed to during the Cold War.

According to the National Reconnaissance Office's official website, the CORONA program revolutionized satellite imagery technology, specializing in photographic reconnaissance of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China from 1959 to 1972. The program's self-stabilized KH-4 satellites employed an array of state-of-the-art panoramic cameras, rotating automatically throughout orbit to allow continuous photography of Earth's surface.

Today, 21 SOPS handles the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the Air Force Satellite Control Network as well as ground antennas and monitoring stations. 21 SOPS is responsible for the operations and maintenance support of the Global Positioning System gound antennas and monitor stations at Diego Garcia Tracking Station, Kaena Point Tracking Station, and the Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, which monitors the drop zone for Minuteman III missile tests fired from Vandenberg.

"Simply put, our department works as a switch-board operator between the satellite and the company using it," said Wulfestieg.

Since its inception in 1961, 21 SOPS has been an integral part of strategic operations for the Air Force and for national security.