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A brief history of the AFSCN

Sunnyvale Air Force Station in 1970s. (Courtesy photo)

Sunnyvale Air Force Station in 1970s. (Courtesy photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In the first part of the brief history of the Air Force Satellite Control Network, I discussed the initial development of the network and its tracking stations.  Early experiments in artificial satellites had demonstrated the need for a system of stations for telemetry and commanding activities.  Initially, the U.S. Air Force used sites originally established in the Pacific region to support missile tests as early satellite tracking stations.  By 1958, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division determined additional sites were required and proceeded to expand the network.  One year later, the Air Force activated the 6594th Test Wing at Palo Alto, California, to conduct on-orbit command and control of satellites.  Supporting the Corona reconnaissance program became a primary function of these sites and remained so during the Corona program's life span.

Part 2: Mission Expansion and Technological Advances

As the development of satellite technology advanced, new opportunities to field systems that enhanced military capability presented themselves.  Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote of the feasibility of manned, geostationary-orbiting communication satellites in 1945 and 1946.  A decade later, John R. Pierce, working for Bell Telephone Laboratories, wrote of the utility of communications "repeaters" in space.  On June 16, 1966, the Air Force launched the first of the initial Defense Satellite Communications System satellites from the Eastern Space and Missile Complex at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense, by the mid-1960s, had begun development of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, a near-polar orbiting satellite using visual and infrared sensors to collect twice-daily weather imagery for use in military operational planning.  Concurrently, the military services were involved in the development of various pathfinder satellite-based navigation systems.  The U.S. Navy successfully launched its first Transit navigation satellite in 1960 and, in 1967, the first of its TIMATION (Time Navigation) satellites.  The U.S. Army developed the Sequential Correlation of Range satellites, while the U.S. Air Force began work on system 621B.  In 1968, the Department of Defense created the Navigation Satellite Executive Committee to coordinate the efforts of these organizations--a joint program office, established in 1973 under Air Force leadership, merged the Navy's TIMATION program and the Air Force's 621B program under the name NAVSTAR Global Positioning System.  The Navy's TIMATION-IV, renamed as Navigation Technology Satellite-2 launched June 23, 1977, as the first NAVSTAR GPS demonstration satellite managed by the joint program office.  The first GPS satellite, NAVSTAR-1, launched Feb. 22, 1978, with 10 additional launches during the next seven years, culminating Oct. 9, 1985. 

The network also continued its support for NASA activities, especially in monitoring telemetry data for NASA launches and on-orbit operations of the Space Transportation System, commonly known as the space shuttle. 

These new systems required improved and expanded facilities to manage their operations and the Sunnyvale, California, site became the center of that expansion.  By the late 1970s, however, the need for a new location for U.S. national satellite operations became evident.  In 1979, the Secretary of Defense authorized the concept for a Consolidated Satellite Operations Center to become the primary AFSCN and satellite operations center and to support the Air Force's Shuttle Operations and Planning Complex.  Eventually, the site for Schriever Air Force Base was chosen, and construction began in 1983. 

Meanwhile, the AFSCN remote tracking stations were undergoing major upgrades.  The Data Systems Modernization program began in 1980 and continued until February 1992.  This improvement introduced new computer hardware and software to perform satellite command and control functions.  In 1984, the Automated Remote Tracking Station began and included the building of the Colorado Tracking Station at Falcon Air Force Station (later Schriever AFB), which became operational in 1989, and the Diego Garcia Tracking Station in the Indian Ocean, which became operational in January 1991.  ARTS offered improved reliability, increased the capacity of the stations and automated many functions, resulting in reduced staffing requirements and reduced operating and maintenance costs.

Falcon Air Force Station opened in 1985, though construction on mission centers continued.  The SOPC phase of the program was cancelled in 1987 after the space shuttle Challenger disaster led to the decision to return to using expendable launch vehicles for Defense Department payloads. This left the CSOC with the satellite control mission, which included serving as the primary node of the AFSCN.  By 1988, the Air Force began a phased approach to operational testing and mission transfers to the new CSOC.  By 1993, Falcon Air Force Base, renamed in 1988, was ready to assume full AFSCN functions.  The Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Materiel Command, formally transferred the Consolidated Space Operations Center to Air Force Space Command Sept. 27, 1993.  At Onizuka AFS, near Sunnyvale, California, the reduction in mission activity resulting from the transfer of primary AFSCN responsibilities would have future effects on the base and its employees.  For the time being, the installation continued as the primary operations center for some national programs and served as the secondary node for AFSCN operations.
Part 3 of this series will discuss AFSCN events and operations from the mid-1990s to the present. 

Information for this article was derived from a variety of government and non-government sources, including NASA History Division, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geophysical Data Center, Space and Missile Center History Office publications.
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