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1st SOPS: Tip of spear for space

1st Space Operations Squadron

The 1st Space Operations Squadron is Air Force Space Command’s premier organization for space-based situational awareness to assure access to space by commanding satellites to collect and disseminate decision-quality information and provide SSA throughout the spectrum of conflict. 1st SOPS was activated Feb. 14, 1961 and since then has undergone name changes, mission changes and the opportunity to work on multiple satellite programs. (U.S. Air Force courtesy graphic)

1st Space Operations Squadron

1st Space Operations Squadron Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness and Space Based Space Surveillance crews operate satellite vehicles on the combined operations floor at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Friday, April 28, 2017. This marked the first time space situational awareness operations were brought together into one ops floor, named Mod 9. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)


If you’re not first, you’re last.

The 1st Space Operations Squadron’s motto might seem misplaced, but this level of confidence is required when working on a championship team.

The squadron, activated Feb. 14, 1961, is Air Force Space Command’s premier organization for space-based situational awareness to assure access to space by commanding satellites to collect and disseminate decision-quality information and provide SSA throughout the spectrum of conflict. 

Orbital analysts, mission planners and program engineers provide program-specific knowledge and support to those crews while operators perform all pre-contact planning, real time contact and post-contact actions.

1st SOPS is known as the tip of the spear for space.

Maj. Andrew Nemeth, 1st SOPS director of mission assurance, said a typical day involves maintaining the capabilities 1st SOPS provides, and planning for the successful integration of new systems and capabilities.

“Day-to-day operations at 1st SOPS are dynamic,” he said. “It takes a lot of solid teamwork to deliver over 75 percent of all the daily Space Surveillance Network’s deep space observations.

“We optimize our plans to provide timely collection for our customers’ decision-making needs,” Nemeth continued. “Some of the best feedback I have heard from our customers has been ‘1st SOPS saw it first’ and ‘1st SOPS saw it best.’ We are hearing that kind of feedback more often.”

Nemeth said the best part about working in 1st SOPS is the people.

“No matter how you got here, whether you support as a contractor or civilian, regular Air Force or Reserve, we are all on the same team,” he said. “We look for ways to improve and pursue innovation relentlessly. We know our mission is absolutely essential for success across the spectrum of conflict, as everything starts with solid SSA. The mix of experience and dedication in the unit is fantastic.”

Nemeth joined 7th SOPS, the reserve unit associated with 1st SOPS, mid-October and shortly thereafter received orders to support 1st SOPS full-time as an operational engineer.

“A short time later, I was asked to be the engineering flight commander,” he said. “Now I am proud to serve on the 1st SOPS leadership team as the director of mission assurance.”

Capt. Krystal Jenkins, 1st SOPS mission planner, also from 7th SOPS, came in as a satellite vehicle operator in 2016, and has experienced different aspects of working in the squadron.

“It was really different,” she said. “From the SVO perspective, you’re the one running the tasks day-to-day, sending commands and monitoring the status of the vehicle. It feels repetitive, but it was where i gained the most knowledge about the system and really understood its capabilities. It definitely helped me be a better mission planner and now instructor.”

As a mission planner, Jenkins gets to plan commands, keep contacts of the sites and times and manages collision avoidance.

“You get to see a deeper part of the planning piece,” she said. “On the low orbit side, you are profiling SSA to the SSN, tracking objects in space, cataloging, tracking foreign objects and tracking foreign launches as well.

“It’s a pretty rewarding job,” Jenkins continued. “You’re tasked with a job and then execute. You get to see more of the process from the initial tasking, planning it up to the vehicle, execution, delivering a product and the SSA effects to the space community overall.”

Nemeth said every space system 1st SOPS operates is delivered to execute missions in timely and efficient ways.

“We have this constant opportunity to recognize synergies, to make the total 1st SOPS capability more than the sum of its parts,” he said. “As a consumer of SSA data, 1st SOPS has an internal demand for timely and very accurate SSA data. As such, we have identified methods to leverage the different look geometries of our platforms to significantly reduce the error in the orbits of objects we are interested in.

“The result is more flexibility for our own mission planning needs,” he continued. “We are cultivating a culture of innovation and more often are asking ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ We take challenges and turn them into opportunities.”

Jenkins’ favorite part about working in 1st SOPS is getting to work on a cutting edge, unique mission set.

“I like getting to understand the planning aspect of everything and seeing how that plays out in the operational piece,” she said. “When I was an SVO, you just sat there and clicked buttons to send up commands, not really knowing the effects of what you’re doing. For the mission planning piece, you get to see those effects.”

Tech. Sgt. Charles Osbourne, 1st SOPS flight chief of mission assurance operations, maintains 14 communication networks for 1st SOPS.

“In a sense, we’re kind of like an imbedded communication squadron inside of 1st SOPS,” he said. “Normally communication is kind of a thankless job, they don’t really know who or what we are until something doesn’t work. It’s not that way with 1st SOPS.”

Osbourne has worked in base communications squadrons a lot during his career, but he said in 1st SOPS, they make the realization that they can’t do what they do unless his team executes their mission.

“In (my) 15 years, it’s probably been my favorite assignment,” he said.

As a flight chief, Osbourne troubleshoots the hardware and computers themselves, works with servers, data storages and cyber.

“It’s unique but very fun,” he said. “The hardest part is keeping up with the ops tempo. 1st SOPS is a very fast-paced unit, and there’s a lot going on. We are the tip of the spear for space domain awareness.”

Osbourne enjoys working in 1st SOPS because of the family aspect, falling in line with the 50th Space Wing’s priority of “take care of our Airmen and families always.”

“We’re always there for each other day or night,” he said. “Everyone knows they have their own job to fill and they do it well. It’s a great job and a great assignment. I wish I could stay longer.”

Although Jenkins’ did not predict she would be working with space, she is grateful she found 1st SOPS.

“I never thought I would be a space person,” she laughed. “It’s a lot more than what you think. It’s ever changing and completely dynamic. There are a lot of different pathways you can go.”

Nemeth agreed with this sentiment.

“We see our squadron as a key enabler of spaceflight safety for planet Earth and for battlespace awareness for our nation,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity to find new ways of using the systems we already have, as well as the ones on the way, to greater effect. We aren’t waiting.”

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