Debriefing: Joint Space Operations Center's departing director, Col. Stephen Whiting

An interview with former Joint Space Operations Center Director Col. Stephen Whiting

The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), activated in May 2005 to provide space operational support for the military services and joint Defense Department commands, might have the largest geographical responsibility of any DOD organization: everything from the surface of the Earth upward.

Located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., JSpOC has hundreds of highly trained workers, from computer specialists and engineers to astrophysicists and solar weather experts, who collect and collate data to track more than 18,000 space objects — satellites, debris and other objects in the Earth’s orbit — and provide a focal point for the operations of worldwide joint space forces. They also help the commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC-Space) integrate space power into global military operations.

Defense Systems contributor Sami Lais spoke recently with Air Force Col. Stephen Whiting, former JSpOC commander and director. In June, Whiting handed over command of JSpOC to Col. Richard Doltz after being selected for the Chief of Staff Air Force Fellows program.

DS: Until last year, you were split between Vandenberg and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Space Control Center in Colorado, right?

Whiting: The 14th Air Force Space and Air Operations Center was here at Vandenberg when [the Strategic Command] came in and gave its authorities to it. That was May 2005 when the operation took on the name Joint Space Operations Center. In August of last year, we had two units move from Cheyenne Mountain to Vandenberg — the Space Control Squadron and the Unified Space Vault, now collocated in the same operation center at the JSpOC at Vandenberg. They are responsible for tracking more than 18,000 objects in space.

DS: Stratcom commander Gen. Kevin Chilton said in 2006 that you were tracking nearly 14,000 objects, but it’s now 18,000, right?

Whiting: Yes. If we had had this interview on the 10th of January last year, it would have been less than 14,000. On the 11th of January, the Chinese Anti-Satellite test occurred. Since then, there also have been some unrelated breakups of rocket bodies in orbit. So you can see the growth we’ve experienced over the last 15 or 16 months.

Actually, since Sputnik launched in October of 1957, we’ve cataloged more than 31,100 man-made objects in space. Of those, 18,000 remain in orbit, and we’re tracking those today.

DS: How?

Whiting: There’s an integrated network of 29 space surveillance sensors around the world known as the Space Surveillance Network.

Many of our sensors are organized as Air Force squadrons operating large phased-array radar. They have the dual mission of providing missile warning for North America while at the same time tracking the 18,000 objects in space.

We also have other units, both Air Force and in the civilian world, that support us with optical systems.

As they track these objects in space, each of the 29 sensors provides us with their observations — basically data that says, in relation to where the sensors are on Earth, where the objects are in space. We correlate the data from the sensors and create orbital element sets for each of the objects. Here from the JSpOC, we task that network — and that includes radars and optical facilities as well — to go up and track those objects. All that tracking data flows back here to Vandenberg, where we maintain the orbital element sets of those 18,000 objects so that we can predict where they will be in space.

DS: How do you use that predictive data to help plan NASA launches?

Whiting: For any launch going up from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg, we provide collision avoidance support. Obviously, we want to be as careful as we can with the launch mission. The Air Force Space Command has had a long string of successful launches, and this is one part of that safety process — to ensure that we don’t hit anything as the rocket goes into space.

DS: How do you integrate so many different kinds and formats of data from so many different sources and kinds of sensors to create a comprehensive — and comprehensible — picture?

Whiting: We do have a number of different sources, predominantly from the Air Force, but there are some very important sources of sensor data provided by the Army as well as other organizations. But all those sensors provide us with data pre-formatted to be compatible with our mission systems here at the JSpOC so we can we can accept the information, predict the orbital element sets and maintain the space catalog of all those 18,000 objects in space. We have a historical database going all the way back to the tracks of the Sputnik object.

DS: Aside from that situational awareness, what’s the role of JSpOC in supporting the rest of DOD?

Whiting: We provide command and control over all the joint space systems that DOD has, and we do that on behalf of the commander of [JFCC-Space] U.S. Strategic Command.

But we also know there are warfighters around the world who need space support as well. And sometimes they need that support in a very tailored and specialized manner to meet their local requirements.

We have a process by which those commands can reach back to us when they need to and give us their requirements, and we can provide the command and control over the assigned space systems to give them the support they need.

A couple of years ago, the Iraqi government was concerned about attacks against its pipeline system. There was a request to the JSpOC to provide any insight that we could. Using our satellite-based infrared systems, we watched for explosions along the pipeline and then provided that information to the warfighters in Iraq to give them a heads-up that there might be attacks occurring along that pipeline.

Commands around the world also have taken very seriously the impact that space can have, and they have requested from each of the services — in particular the Air Force and the Army — space expertise for their staffs as well. They have a robust expertise that enables them to understand what their space requirements are and reach back to the JSpOC when they need to to get that specialized support.

DS: How big a staff does JSpOC have to provide that support?

Whiting: It’s about 400 personnel, the vast majority of whom are Air Force, but we have a very important contribution here provided by Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel as well as our civilian and contractor staff. In addition, we have international representation here with British, Australian and Canadian air force personnel assigned here.

DS: What kind of job descriptions are we talking about?

Whiting: Most [of the military personnel] are coded as space operations professionals. In the Air Force, we have a career field for both officers and enlisted noncommissioned officers where personnel are trained to be space operators, that is, to operate space equipment. During that training, they get an overview of many areas: orbital dynamics, spacecraft design and operation, ground system design, and operation.

I also have some astrophysicists, engineers with Ph.D.s, some civilian and contractor specialists for computer systems, intelligence personnel from the various services and a small team of solar weather experts to watch the sun and its activities to help us predict what the impact of the sun will be on our space operations.

DS: What kind of role do you see JSpOC playing in the future?

Whiting: First, we don’t do this in isolation. Yes, we’re the center of gravity for [DOD’s] joint space operations, but we also have interactions and partnerships with other government entities such as NASA, [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], the intelligence community and others that also have an interest in space. And we want to ensure that we’re doing [our job] in a collaborative manner and sharing all the information we have to produce a common picture of what’s going on in space.

Space situational awareness is foundational to everything the United States does in space today. Knowing what is happening in space and what any potential adversaries might be intending, knowing what the impacts are of solar weather — that’s foundational to everything we do. And that is one of the core missions of the JSpOC.

DS: Since JSpOC’s activation, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy moving components from Cheyenne Mountain and integrating operations while continuing to fulfill your mission. What’s next?

Whiting: For the first time, we have an operations center that brings together all the elements of space situational awareness. The next challenge — and it’s really an opportunity — is working with the development community to bring us the tools that are going to allow us to fuse data in a way that will give us that next order of magnitude improvement in space situational awareness.

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