Col. Nina Armagno, group commander, Peterson AFB

Sometimes falling short of a goal can end up being the best thing for a person.

Col. Nina Armagno wanted to be an astronaut, which is why she went to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1988. But she ended up as commander of the 21st operations group, 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base.

Armagno now looks out for the United States from space — guiding military, contractors and civilians in running the Air Force’s $3.25 billion space missile defense systems.

“We track every object there is in space,” Armagno said.

The daughter of an Italian immigrant and a mother with ties all the way back to the Mayflower, Armagno has worked hard to not only defend America, but to improve the Air Force and mentor those coming up through the ranks.

“I fully understand what’s been entrusted to me,” she said. “It’s very humbling. Many of these Airmen joined after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They saw this nation under attack and dedicated their lives and decided to join the military and serve their country. I’m just blown away by them.”

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The 21st operations group is the biggest in space command, with 16 units spread across the globe. Armagno commands more than 1,700 personnel.

The Air Force has taught Armagno many lessons.

“I learned a lot about the challenges of leadership,” she said. “I had to be confident in myself and what I knew. I might have been the youngest in age and the least experienced crew member, but I was still the crew commander.”

Armagno said she also discovered an unyielding admiration for the enlisted members. “They are just the backbone of the Air Force,” she said.

Along the way, Armagno became the first woman to serve as a launch director when the Air Force sent a GPS satellite into space with a Delta II rocket. Her supervisors said she’s developed a reputation for being frugal with taxpayer dollars, but effective.

“Give Nina a challenge and she will deliver,” Lt. Gen. Larry James, 14th Air Force commander, said of Armagno’s unit completing a $240 million upgrade of a radar and missile defense project.

“I look back and just say ‘holy cow,’” Armagno said. “When I think of the course I took, I never would have guessed it or anticipated I’d get this far. But I always had ambition, could always see the next rank.”

She attributes that work ethic to her parents and Air Force leaders who taught her: “Even if your job is to shine a doorknob in a hallway of doors, your knob better be the shiniest.”

Armagno does what she can to help students at the Air Force Academy, whether it’s developing a lesson plan, speaking as part of a panel of experts or mentoring young cadets. She wishes she had time to do more, but watching every object around the planet consumes a bit of time. She also credited her husband, Eddie Papczun, for her success.

“The challenge is to continually grow as a leader and continue to lead well,” she said. “There are challenges here in space operations as well: technological; sustaining old systems; bringing new and future systems online. … We’re in a unique place in history where the Cold War is over and our current war is of counter-insurgency. But we have to be prepared to fight and win against an air enemy.”

By Dennis Huspeni