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Pathfinder operation prepares technicians for Minotaur launches

Airmen from the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron, along with civilian partners, conduct a training mission dubbed the Minotaur IV Pathfinder, Aug. 31, 2015, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The six days of training consisted of various organizations working together to practice smooth cohesion in the event of a real-world Minotaur launch. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/Released)

Airmen from the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron, along with civilian partners, conduct a training mission dubbed the Minotaur IV Pathfinder, Aug. 31, 2015, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The six days of training consisted of various organizations working together to practice smooth cohesion in the event of a real-world Minotaur launch. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/Released)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airmen from the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron, along with civilian partners, have been conducting a comprehensive training mission dubbed the Minotaur IV Pathfinder, here, Aug. 28 through Sept. 2.

The six days of training consisted of various organizations including the Rocket Systems Launch Program, 309th Missile Maintenance Group, TASC Mission Assurance, Orbital ATK, and Vandenberg's own 1st Air and Space Test Squadron, working together to practice smooth cohesion in the event of a real-world Minotaur IV launch.

"The current operation we are involved in is the Minotaur IV Pathfinder," said Capt. Jake Woller, 1st ASTS launch mission manager. "It is called a Pathfinder because it is essentially a training mission for our Minotaur Team. We will not actually be launching, just stacking and de-stacking three inert motors. We need to do this training mostly to keep our space and missile technicians trained and qualified for actual launch operations, which have been few and far between in recent years."

Made from converted Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Minotaur IV launch vehicle is the only space vehicle, launched from Vandenberg, to be transported and handled by Airmen - as opposed to civilian contractors.

"This training is unique because the personnel who transport the Minotaur are the only personnel in the Air Force who do this job -- the only personnel in the world for that matter," said 1st Lt. Ed Colon, 1st ASTS deputy flight commander. "This is a special event because this is the first time this team was able to conduct operations at Vandenberg in a very long time."

Carrying the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2, the last Minotaur IV launched from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex-8 was more than four years ago. With real-world Minotaur IV launches being scarce, training missions like the Minotaur IV Pathfinder are essential to keeping the technicians' skills honed.

"Our six space and missile technicians are the standout performers," said Woller. "They are the ones actually moving all this equipment around and are absolutely key to mission success. Without trained and qualified space-lift maintenance technicians, this mission for the Air Force does not happen."

Those involved in the training also attribute its success to the robust relationship between the Air Force and its civilian partners, who tackled various logistic challenges.

"Orbital ATK plays a huge role as well in completion of our Minotaur missions. They are responsible for preparing the launch pad, building the launch stand and scaffolding, and lifting and stacking the motors on the launch stand. We have a great relationship with them and are very appreciative of all the hard work they have done."