Space Cowboys

February 10, 2011

Dear Members and Friends,

Where spacious skies and the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains lies the United States Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado Springs, Colorado on the high foothills of Cheyenne Mountain. U.S. Air Force Space Command, through the 14th Air Force and the 460th Air Wing at nearby Buckley AFB on the outskirts of Denver, controls and operates a number of satellites. These satellites provide missile warning all over the earth; when and where missiles are launched from and going to, twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year. Activated on July 1st, 1971 their mission is to provide superior space-based surveillance to support strategic and tactical decision makers of United States and allied forces worldwide.

This mission is absolutely critical for our national security as it provides real time information to the President and Department of Defense on every ballistic missile launched from Earth including ICBMs, short- and medium-range theater missiles, sea launched missiles and space launches. Close in priority, this mission also detects nuclear detonations globally and is linked to the operations of all of our nation’s missile defense systems; both for defense of our nation and for theater/regional combat commanders defending our troops and allies. The latter through the United States Army 1st Space Brigade and Joint Tactical Ground Station (JTAGS).

The primary satellites today are called the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites that use infrared detection and sends information directly or via ground relay stations in Europe and the Pacific to Buckley AFB. The 2nd Space Warning Squadron (2SWS) is made up of approximately twenty operators working in shifts all day, every day controlling the DSP satellites keeping them parked, processing and retrieving information in a geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

Another set of defense satellites for this mission run by the 460th Space Wing are called the Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) satellites, derived by from the Molniya orbit the Russians developed in the 1960s, which provide extended time and coverage over the Northern Hemisphere. The HEOs are operated by the 11th Space Warning Squadron (11SWS) located at Schriever AFB, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The modernization of the satellites required for this mission will begin with the first satellite launch scheduled for April 30th of the GEO DSP. This will be the first of six that will be added to eventually replace the existing fleet of DSPs. There will be an additional set of HEOs launched in the near future to provide further extended coverage.

The future of the overall mission will also include a new space-based capability to provide not just warning but launch to termination tracking and discrimination of ballistic missiles called the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS). The PTSS will be a constellation of satellites flying in low earth orbit that will evolve from the two successful test satellites currently deployed, called the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS).

It is without a doubt an extremely challenging and critical mission for the United States Air Force and the Airmen of the 460th Air Wing to identify and process ballistic missile heat signatures quickly and correctly. These Airmen, though unnoticed and unheralded in this mission, are vigilant vanguards for our homeland and our troops overseas.

We appreciate their service and the gravity of their mission.

Some people call them the space cowboys…

Resource Library


Curtis Stiles - Chief of Staff