WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2014—In the absolute silence of space, a special group of satellites circles our planet in a fast, low earth orbit, their cameras and sensors point toward Earth as they record endless data and images of storm systems and weather patterns moving across the globe below.
Back on the ground, hidden in a D.C. suburb, Maj. Jonathan Whitaker squints against the sun and points to Marine One, the U.S. president’s dedicated helicopter, as it arches its way across the horizon of the nation’s capital.
Whitaker is commander of Detachment 1, 50th Operations Group, which belongs to the 50th Space Wing, Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. However, the geographically separated unit places its guidon flag hundreds of miles east, in Suitland, Maryland.
With a small contingent of four Air Force officers, the detachment is responsible for seven satellites that comprise the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, or DMSP. The team coordinates with the space experts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, contractor corporations and military organizations to maintain the command, control, and health of Defense Department weather assets.
“We’re sort of a way point for the pilots as they travel through the area,” Whitaker explained, standing in the shadow of a large antenna dish atop NOAA’s Satellite Operations Center.
Little may the helicopter pilots know, they not only rely on NOAA’s array as a minor urban visual aid. Its antennae are always pointed toward the sky in anticipation of a satellite flyover -- which allows the operators inside the building to send and receive thousands of lines of vital international weather data — the very same data that pilots around the world use to make flight predictions.
The DMSP network is the DOD’s only weather satellite constellation and has provided military and civilian agencies with global meteorological and environmental data for more than five decades.
While users vary from the National Weather Service to the National Hurricane Center, its primary customers are the Air Force Weather Agency and the Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center. They take data from DMSP and NOAA’s other satellites and combine it to create various mission-specific weather forecasts.
“Weather is the only variable in war that cannot be controlled by any party engaged in a conflict,” said Capt. Tyson Johnson, the detachment’s ground systems flight commander. “The data we’re able to provide out of this facility, is the gold standard for both civilian and military weather prediction and gives commanders an edge in battle.”
As a former enlisted explosive ordnance disposal technician, Johnson has experienced the impact weather has on missions, something that now allows the officer to be operations-focused and driven with the warfighter in mind.
“I had a very hands-on, point-of-the spear mission,” Johnson said. “Today, I take pride in providing timely, accurate weather data to my brothers and sisters who are still in harm’s way. Our work allows mission planners to insert them into the best possible situations and predict environmental implications to help ensure success.
“Sand storms, for example, are a huge concern for rotary wing aircraft. To be able to predict the wind and how fast that sandstorm is moving, gives them the window to get off the ground and get where they need to go,” Johnson continued. “When the chance for success hinges on close air support, we help get those jets and helicopters off the ground and in the fight safely; and when things go badly, medevac personnel can get in the air and arrive on scene in time to save lives.”
While the DMSP started as a classified program in the 1960s, to support the National Reconnaissance Office's top-secret CORONA satellite program, they weren’t publicly acknowledged until 1973. Today, the program’s products are no longer used for defense operations alone. From government agencies to commercial users, the data provided by NOAA and the Air Force affects everyday lives worldwide.
“The DMSP mission is the oldest continuously operational constellation in the DOD,” Whitaker said. “While most Americans may never use or even see our data, they benefit from the efforts of Det. 1 and our interagency partner NOAA.”
The team’s mission is unique in Air Force Space Command and places them as a connector between two cabinet-level organizations -- the Department of Commerce and the DOD -- as an important traffic point on the data highway.
“Many agencies are interested in our data and we keep all those players in the loop and let them know what is happening,” said Capt. Melissa K. Bierma, the assistant director of operations and executive officer. “We often translate information from one organization to the next.”
Bierma arrived at the station four years ago and has seen the unit take on increasing responsibility at NOAA. She began her work with the engineers and has developed an expertise when it comes to sensors aboard the spacecraft.
“We have to ensure our data is of good quality, and it’s being fed to the warfighter 24/7, 365,” she said. “And if there is a problem with any of the systems that keep the satellite in orbit, we need to find out where the problem is. If one of the sensors goes out, there is a loss of data that could mean the warfighter doesn’t get important data points.”
The partnership between NOAA has provided the Air Force highly specialized NOAA engineers, operators and schedulers -- who are recognized among the most experienced group of its kind, Whitaker said. It makes the detachment the only unit within the 50th SW with an interagency mission.
“We work side-by-side with the Department of Commerce to control our satellites,” Whitaker said. “The majority of the (civilian) DMSP team has greater than a decade of experience on the mission – and many are military veterans.”
Under the dimmed lights of the operations floor, NOAA’s satellite operators focus on seemingly endless lines of data displayed on stacked rows of computer screens. Every operator is responsible for a satellite and a desk cluster comprises a constellation. Each pass of a satellite opens a limited time window allowing communications to the satellite, requiring operators to be ready to pull and push data to their satellite quickly.
With their heads deep in the acquisitions and planning world, the Airmen maintain a strong operational focus. Any given day can include numerous meetings and conferences with contractor representatives and stakeholders to get clarification on the sensor status, software updates to the spacecraft or planning for an upcoming launch.
“We serve as diplomats and liaisons between some 17 different organizations,” said Capt. Nathaniel Sharkey, the director of operations at Det. 1. “We’re the glue that holds everything together but also the grease that allows all the gears to mesh well. The detachment makes sure everyone stays on target, mission focused and has the resources needed to get the job done.”
With so many parts working together, the Airmen bring the necessary focal point for the defense mission and make sure Air Force assets are protected and working properly in what is often a hazardous environment.
“Our constellation moves in lower earth orbit,” Sharkey said. “There is a lot of stuff there, so we’re very concerned about collision avoidance. At least twice a day, we’ll check that there aren’t any close approaches or near misses that require additional attention.”
The view on weather from space is essential and gives the ultimate overview. Knowing the condition and status of the satellites is critical to the sustainment of the fragile sys-tems that offer such an essential tool to ground commanders and users worldwide.
“Space is the final frontier. It’s the cutting edge and furthest boundary humans can reach out to and push through,” Sharkey said. “It’s about pushing the envelope. And we exceed and excel where humans have no business being. To me that is fascinating and incredible.
“I joined the military to help and protect people — to have an impact,” Sharkey continued. “Our Air Force space missions do that. DMSP and weather prediction saves lives. What space operations provide is not just for the warfighter on the battlefield, we enhance life for everyone on the planet.”
The DMSP team achieved an operational milestone when their oldest operational satellite, DMSP F-13, orbited the earth for the 100,000th time -- a rare feat, Whitaker said.
Despite its relative age, the defense weather mission is far from over as the need for on-demand, reliable weather forecasts is only increasing.
“We are engaged in the budgeting, planning and installation of key components to our aging ground system that will keep our constellation viable through the next decade and beyond,” Whitaker added.
Recently, his team watched over the successful launch of their newest satellite, DMSP F-19, and is preparing to launch another, F-20, soon -- so Air Force eyes in the sky can keep watch for years to come.