Airmen look ahead after historic GPS satellite mission

  • Published
  • By Sean Kimmons
  • Air Force News Service
Capt. Trung Nguyen was born the year the first of the latest series of GPS satellites was blasted into space.

Twenty seven years later, the Airman helped process the final GPS IIF satellite, worth about $131 million, before it was launched on an Atlas V rocket in early February.

"All your work leads up to that point when the rocket is launched and the satellite is in orbit," said Nguyen, the 45th Launch Support Squadron's GPS IIF field program manager. "It's very gratifying work."

The next round of Air Force-owned GPS satellites, Block III, is now in production by Lockheed Martin, which is expected to launch the first of its 32 satellites in late 2017.

Global influence

GPS satellites offer countless civilian and military uses. From getting cash out of an ATM or sharing a trip on social media to tracking combat troops or dropping precision bombs, the Air Force's Navstar GPS constellation of 24 satellites is there.

"You have the same capability that the military does as far as accuracy," said 1st Lt. Olivia Kinney, a 45th LSS responsible engineer who has worked on several of the satellites.

Since 1989, when the GPS program's second generation began, 62 satellites have been launched. As satellites degraded over the years, new ones have taken their place providing better accuracy. This has increased position accuracy to only 5 feet, while the next GPS satellites aim to further narrow it to about 2 feet.

"GPS will be here when you need it," said Col. Steve Whitney, the director of the Space and Missile Systems Center's GPS Directorate at Los Angeles Air Force Base. "Our goal is to deliver sustained, reliable GPS capabilities to users around the world."

Before a GPS satellite is shot out 11,000 miles above Earth, an Airmen-led team oversees its preparation inside two facilities nestled among the ruins of past space missions at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"We're working on hallowed ground here," Nguyen said.

Although it can be a tedious three-month operation of extensive fuel and electrical systems testing, processing is vital to ensure a satellite can work in space. If it cannot, the GPS constellation may face serious flaws.

If the GPS system were fully disrupted, for example, it could cost roughly $96 billion per year to GPS users and manufacturers, according to a 2011 study by the NDP Consulting Group, a Washington, D.C.-based economic consulting firm.

"You're really the last person to work on them," Kinney said of the years of work that goes into each satellite. "We're just here at the end of the process."

The final GPS IIF mission capped off a hectic time for Airmen who saw seven of the satellites in 21 months, on top of other satellite missions, during one of the most aggressive launch campaigns in decades.

"We had overlapped missions," said Nguyen, who helped on six GPS launches. "One satellite was going up, another was coming in. There were a lot of moving parts."

Lifting a curse

The most recent GPS mission was also riddled with snags leaving Airmen and contractors on high alert. The satellite was jokingly called the "Beetlejuice curse" since it had been delayed for delivery three times.

"(The satellite) had problems at the factory with processing and it got pushed out of line," said Staff Sgt. David Jeetan, a 45th LSS mission assurance technician.

More issues surfaced later when it arrived at the squadron's facilities due to it being out of the processing flow.

"When it came to the Cape, there were extra eyes on it," said Jeetan, who served as the satellite's lead MAT. "We were able catch all the anomalies."

GPS satellites may belong to the Air Force, but contractors are the only ones who physically handle them. Airmen make sure tools are calibrated correctly, testing systems run properly, and procedures are followed.

When a mishap does arise, mission assurance technicians link up with the squadron's responsible engineers to share their thoughts on how to solve the issue.

"That's a big help in anomaly resolution," Kinney said of her enlisted counterparts who come from the missileer career field.

While MATs are more mechanically minded from their experience with intercontinental ballistic missiles, the role of responsible engineers is to look at data and give a risk assessment before the contractor sends a satellite to space.

Once the first GPS III satellite rolls in next year, Airmen will again add it to their list of processing duties.

"At the end of the day, the Air Force still owns the satellite," Kinney said. "It's our baby so we want to make sure it's processed properly."