With its vital mission of protecting Americans and America’s interests utilizing a set of highly advanced systems in orbit and back on earth, the United States Space Force relies on the intellect and expertise of its Guardians. These are the folks who run, design, and develop training for a variety of USSF’s systems and operate its Squadrons, Deltas, and Field Commands (the different units of command).
Who are these actual Guardians? Here, a quick look at five talents on the team.
1st Lt. Shelby Harper, Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado
When Lt. Shelby Harper gets to work each day as a missile warning Mission Commander and Space Operator at the 2nd Space Warning Squadron, she’s keenly aware that there could be a surprise awaiting her at any moment. “You never know what you’re going to get,” says the native Texan, who holds a University of Houston degree in human resources rather than the STEM backgrounds common among Guardians. “We work closely with our intelligence folks, but it can be a [routine] shift and then something happens and you have to react within a second.”
1st Lt. Harper leads a crew of enlisted space operators who use the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation of satellites to detect missile launches. If SBIRS spots a launch, they decipher and confirm the data, and then pass the warning on to the chain of command. “When people ask me what I do, I usually just say, ‘missile warning’, she notes. “We’re the first line of defense.”
When off-duty, she’s typically working out, enjoying a good meal, or resting, turning to low-key activities to offset the demands of the high-pressure position. One of the biggest job responsibilities? “It’s ultimately our call as mission commanders to decide what the data means,” she says, “even if we’re not 100 percent sure.”
Sgt. Evan Wood, Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado
Several years back, Sgt. Evan Wood had no idea that his enthusiasm for the space-simulation computer game Kerbal Space Program would so aptly mesh with his future career. But having joined Space Force from the USAF to serve as a Space Systems Operator, Mission Planner with the 3rd Space Operations Squadron, Space Delta 9, his tasks these days actually resemble some of the challenges in that game.
The squadron is where USSF conducts on-orbit experimentation and technology demonstrations while supporting general space domain awareness. Here, Sgt. Wood develops tactics for USSF space-based and ground defense systems. “It seems like every day there’s a new puzzle… that we have to think outside the box to solve,” he says, adding, “Altogether, I’m around the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
Originally from Battle Creek, MI, Sgt. Wood is a self-described “gearhead.” He spends much of his free time rebuilding his Jeep for weekend offroading, and when it comes to his Guardian job, one of the aspects he appreciates most is that it’s not only rank that weighs heavily in the USSF, but also technical expertise. With value “coming from your knowledge base and your experience from previous jobs,” he says, there are scenarios in which “a Specialist 2 may know more than the Captain on the ops-floor.”
1st Lt. Samantha Work, Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado
As an executive officer, 1st Lt. Work helps lead Space Delta 2, which is responsible for training and assigning personnel to take on the space domain awareness mission (detecting, tracking, and identifying artificial objects in Earth’s orbit) across the country and around the world. And it’s not because she’s an actual mother of a 10-year-old that she views herself as “the mom” of this crew; the real reason is that the position requires her to “constantly juggle the professional and sometimes personal aspects [of the Delta],” she says, “making sure that the schedule stays tight, people are assigned, and important data is shared among Space Delta 2.”
The former USAF intelligence officer considers the role (managing the people who manage orbital awareness) pioneering. And perhaps most intriguing of all, but equally rewarding, is the challenge of reconciling the often conflicting demands of complex operations and growing an institution. “The fact that you can look up and see man-made objects in space is telling as to how crowded the space domain is getting,” she says, noting that one of the best parts of the job is “watching the Space Force grow and change every day”—especially as this is powered by her peers. “Everything from our motto to our uniforms to the patches that we wear…,” she says. “Those were made by Guardians for Guardians.”
Technical Sgt. Nikolaus Clausen, Cape Cod Space Force Station, Massachusetts
Staying vigilant while operating one of USSF’s Upgraded Early Warning Radars (UEWR) sounds about as high-pressure as it gets, but Technical Sgt. Nikolaus Clausen shares that, for him, it’s become almost second nature. “You get this awareness of your system, the things you’re seeing and what’s going on,” he says. “You’re always focused.”
That’s a good thing, because the ground-based radar that Technical Sgt. Clausen operates as part of the 6th Space Warning Squadron, Space Delta 4, is one of seven that USSF runs for strategic and theater missile warning (literally, early warning trip-wires for America). “We’re monitoring for anything that comes through our coverage area,” he says, “whether that’s an object that fits the profile of a missile, other space objects, or satellites.”
Having started his military service with the U.S. Air Force in 2012, Technical Sgt. Clausen was eager to join the newer branch, transferring to Space Force “on the first day they would let me,” he says. Now, as a USSF Crew Chief, he leads a team of three radar operators who can discern real objects from sometimes misleading radar data—and the evolving nature of the sector is an aspect he finds particularly thrilling. “We’re standing everything up in the Space Force, defining what our identity and culture will be,” he says. “I feel like we’re definitely playing a part in where this is heading.”
Capt. Natalia Pinto, Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado
When Capt. Pinto served as a crew commander in the Air Force at what is now Cape Cod Space Force Station, MA, she monitored the U.S.’s Eastern seacoast for missile activity. These days, as a mission commander with the 3rd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Space Force Base, CO, she conducts operations in support of Delta-9’s mission of protecting and defending U.S. space assets from adversary aggression.
It’s been a transition, and not just in terms of straight-up roles and responsibilities. “I really don’t know how, but I feel like more of a warfighter now than I did as an Airman,” says the Fort Lauderdale, FL, native. “Maybe that’s just the Space Force culture.”
Space defense is an immense responsibility, Capt. Pinto acknowledges, but USSF and USAF Guardians and Airmen work hand-in-hand at Schriever Space Force Base, and that collaboration eases the burden. “The [blue] uniform makes us feel like we’re all part of the same DoD team,” Capt. Pinto says, though there is one very visible differentiator: “You can see the Space Force tag a lot better,” she points out.
And now that the community has been gradually getting used to spotting USSF personnel in its midst, locals have had some emotional reactions. “I stopped by FedEx one day after work,” Capt. Pinto recalls, and one of the employees said, ‘Ohh, you’re the first person I’ve seen in the Space Force uniform! I just got chills!”
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