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Radar outlasts 50 years of faithful service

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The crew of Vandenberg’s FPS-16 Radar stand on the radars platform positioned 2,500 feet up on the base’s highest point, Tranquillon Peak, June 9. The radar is used to provide data and track missiles during launches. This radar, along with its data system, will be tracking the upcoming June 29 Minuteman III launch to direct the missile and ensure its direction is not altered. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Steve Bauer)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The crew of Vandenberg’s FPS-16 Radar stand on the radars platform positioned 2,500 feet up on the base’s highest point, Tranquillon Peak, June 9. The radar is used to provide data and track missiles during launches. This radar, along with its data system, will be tracking the upcoming June 29 Minuteman III launch to direct the missile and ensure its direction is not altered. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Steve Bauer)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Manning a control panel that dates back more than 50 years, Salvador Sanchez, contractor for Western Range Operations Communications and Information, operates the FPS-16 Radar here June 9. The radar is used to provide data and track missiles during launches. This radar, along with its data system, will be tracking the upcoming June 29 Minuteman III launch to direct the missile and ensure its direction is not altered. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Steve Bauer)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Manning a control panel that dates back more than 50 years, Salvador Sanchez, contractor for Western Range Operations Communications and Information, operates the FPS-16 Radar here June 9. The radar is used to provide data and track missiles during launches. This radar, along with its data system, will be tracking the upcoming June 29 Minuteman III launch to direct the missile and ensure its direction is not altered. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Steve Bauer)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Rod Kennedy, an Indyne radar department manager, stands before a two-story building used to anchor the FPS-16 Radar here June 9.  The radar is used to provide data and track missiles during launches. This radar, along with its data system, will be tracking the upcoming June 29 Minuteman III launch to direct the missile and ensure its direction is not altered. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Steve Bauer)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Rod Kennedy, an Indyne radar department manager, stands before a two-story building used to anchor the FPS-16 Radar here June 9. The radar is used to provide data and track missiles during launches. This radar, along with its data system, will be tracking the upcoming June 29 Minuteman III launch to direct the missile and ensure its direction is not altered. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Steve Bauer)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The early stages of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union ignited innovations that catapulted humans and satellites into space. Engineering in both countries ran rampant, stopping at nothing to maintain a competitive edge. Instrumentation was being built to launch spacecrafts, which captured the majority of the attention of the masses. However, the successful space missions of the time could not have been possible without ground tracking sites such as Vandenberg's FPS-16 Radar.

Housed in a two-story, concrete building positioned on top of Vandenberg's highest point, Tranquillon Peak, the FPS-16 Radar celebrated its 50-year anniversary June 3.

On June 3, 1959, the metric tracking radar supported the launch of Discoverer III, which was a prototype of a first-generation surveillance satellite launched out of Space Launch Complex 75-3-4. The mission attempted to send three mice into orbit, but the spacecraft ultimately failed to achieve orbit.

"The FPS-16 Radar was a state-of-the-art radar of its time that provided highly accurate vehicle positioning data, vital to early space program research and operational objectives," said Lee Barnby, a director for InDyne, which is a contracted company on base.

The purpose of the radar is to track any type of moving object by identifying its time, space and position. The data the radar collects is used to determine the exact course a vehicle is traveling. The highly accurate single-object-tracking radar is used extensively by the U.S. Air Force and NASA's manned space program.

"The radar is doing basically the same job that it has always done, and it is still significantly important to the western range and Vandenberg's space lift mission," said Steve Daly, a 30th Range Management Squadron range systems engineer. "The FPS-16 Radar has seen its fair share of upgrades and maintenance over the years, but it still remains to be very viable today."

Even though the FPS-16 Radar is one of Vandenberg's oldest pieces of equipment, it still serves a purpose among the base's more modern radar systems.

"Although Vandenberg's newer radars provide higher quality tracking data at greater ranges, the FPS-16 Radar's superior reliability, with an accuracy of more than 99.97 percent over the past year, still gives the 30th Space Wing great confidence in assured availability of tracking data throughout a vehicle's flight," Mr. Barnby said.

The radar continues to support the American space and missile launch programs even after 50 years. The next vehicle the FPS-16 Radar will track is a Minuteman III scheduled to launch from Vandenberg June 29.