VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
I have had the privilege of working on two historic NASA missions over the past year, during which the United States launched astronauts into space from its own soil for the first time since 2011. Although these launches took place from a launch pad in Florida, my team’s participation in both launches took place from the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. This team of space experts from Vandenberg not only had Americans and Canadians like me on it, but a whole host of multinational partners as well.
The first of the two crewed launches this year took place on May 30, 2020, and it was no surprise seeing the excitement around the operations floor leading up to the event. That day, the SpaceX Demonstration Mission #2 (DM-2) launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, and marked the first launch of U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil since the last launch of the space shuttle, Atlantis, occurred on July 8, 2011.
Our team here at the Combined Force Space Component Command’s CSpOC worked with a variety of U.S. and international units to ensure this was a well-planned and executed mission. In the weeks prior to the launch, we used our existing relationships with Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to identify where the allies could provide support to the mission. Once support had been formally requested, the CSpOC sensor plan was then integrated in to a wider U.S. Space Command sensor plan to ensure senior leaders had sufficient situational awareness for the duration of the mission. What we noticed from this launch was simple: human space flight is exciting to everyone, regardless of what country is launching astronauts into space.
From my perspective as a space operations officer and air traffic controller, the DM-2 mission pushed us even harder to find creative ways to disseminate real-time data to all partners and ensure all sensors were primed and ready to track the spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station (ISS). For instance, we initially discovered that no two countries “spoke the same language” when describing technical data, and we quickly realized we needed to collaborate and standardize the reporting of this important data for mission success. These lessons are applicable across a number of missions we conduct with our allied partners and, by incorporating them on a daily basis, will help make our operations more effective.
The second mission sending humans to space from the United States took place on Nov. 16, 2020, aboard the SpaceX Dragon Crew-1 ‘Resilience’ capsule. Like the CSpOC team that supported the mission, the crew of three Americans and one Japanese astronaut was also multinational.
I had the honor of being the CSpOC lead for the Dragon Resilience mission. Many of the core functions of this CSpOC team were similar to the DM-2 mission, which included providing Space Domain Awareness to Dragon Resilience and the ISS to avoid any collisions with other space objects and, equally as important, to communicate that data between NASA Johnson Space Center and other partners on this mission. 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 at Vandenberg AFB, for tracking real-time milestones such as maneuver times, docking, and status of the capsule.
I certainly think that our small team of about 15 people at Vandenberg made a big impact on the successful Dragon Resilience mission. We are also shaping the future of human space flight by redefining how we work together and execute those missions with the help of our allies and partners. With Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and others showing support to the program, I am hopeful that future missions only grow in terms of multinational presence and partnerships. It makes sense to have a multinational team supporting multinational space missions. We are certainly stronger together.
About the Author
Major Michael Lang is a Royal Canadian Air Force Officer assigned to the Combined Force Space Component Command’s Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. He is the first allied partner there to hold the role of deputy chief, Human Space Flight Support, and has a background in Space Operations and Air Traffic Control. He was also the CSpOC lead for the recent SpaceX Dragon Crew-1 ‘Resilience’ mission. He has worked Missile Warning and Space Domain Awareness at Beale AFB, Calif., and was deputy chief within Delta 2, formerly known as the 21st Operations Group, Standardization and Evaluation Division, at Peterson AFB, Colo.