Space wing highlights technology, partnerships

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El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton chats with Col. Christopher Eagan (right), 821st Air Base Group commander at Thule Air Base, Greenland, and Chief Master Sgt. Scott Robbins, 821st ABG superintendent, at the State of the Wing event.

As the space domain becomes more congested and contested — with more than 200 satellites launched in the last year alone — the 21st Space Wing is focused on increasing its partnerships and increasing its technological capabilities, said Wing Commander Col. Doug Schiess at Peterson Air Force Base’s State of the Wing address on Oct. 6.

Schiess discussed the wing’s enhanced radar systems, advanced training for space operators and new partnerships to build the next generation of space defense with community and base leaders at the event.

He explained that the 21st Space Wing covers a wide swath of the nation’s space defense. The wing consists of 38 units — operating nine weapon systems from 25 locations in seven countries, managing six installations in 13 time zones, Schiess said.

“Our space capabilities provide the nation with the means to meet the Air Force’s unique mission sets of global vigilance, power and reach,” he said. “Our mission continues to be global because we are the defenders and protectors of space.”

The wing has 53 mission partners at Peterson and executes real-time space control, missile warning and defense, airfield and weather operations, and worldwide intelligence support.

NEW PARTNERS

One of the wing’s newest mission sets is leveraging partnerships with Australia in the space arena, Schiess said.

This year the 21st Space Wing added its first liaison officer to work with the Royal Australian Air Force. Air Force Space Command relocated radar systems into the Space Surveillance Network in cooperation with Australian space operators.

“The Australians joined our great relationships we already have with British and Canadian partners,” Schiess said.

Part of the mission is to track space junk — debris that could damage satellites or the International Space Station.

The wing tracks 23,000 space objects each day, however, there are nearly 500,000 too small to track, he said. But that’s changing with technology.

The Missile Defense Agency, which is also located in Colorado Springs at Schriever Air Force Base, is building a long-range radar communication system, with a primary focus on missile defense, Schiess said. But the wing will be able to use it as well.

“With the new radar, the wing will be able to track up to 200 objects at once,” he said. “Imagine being able to track something as big as a basketball. With this new radar, we’ll be able to possibly track objects the size of a softball.”

STRENGTHENING LOCAL TIES

Continuing to build and strengthen community partnerships is a high priority for the wing — even when the news isn’t that good.

The biggest examples of the wing working side-by-side with the community haven’t been under the best circumstances, he said. The Air Force had to respond to the Thunderbird crash after the Air Force Academy graduation flyover last May, and is still contending with reports of chemical contamination in local water supplies and private wells that investigators believe came from fire-fighting foam used at Peterson years ago. In addition, they’re still repairing the damage from a large hail storm this summer.

Schiess said there were several Air Force groups working to discover the cause of perfluorinated chemicals found in drinking water in Fountain, Security and Widefield, among them the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, the secretary of the Air Force and the Environmental Directorate. But Peterson is active in the investigation as well.

“Peterson is actively engaged in being a conduit between the community and higher Air Force and is committed to supporting local communities affected by the contamination,” Schiess said.

In January, the Business Journal broke the news that water in the three systems had higher-than-recommended levels of PFCs, chemicals linked to birth defects and certain types of cancer. Found in household products like Teflon and Scotchgard, the chemicals were produced by mainly by DuPont, and communities around the nation are suing the company for contaminating water supplies. One case has already been resolved in favor of the community. In El Paso County, the Air Force has given money to help offset the cost of household filters and filters at the well sites in the cities most affected by the contamination.

And this month, the Air Force will begin digging 13 wells to narrow the locations where PFCs could be seeping into the water supply.

It’s vital, Schiess said, to be a good partner with the community. He said the continued support the wing receives allows it to execute capabilities to defend and secure space.

“Without the support from our federal, state, regional, county and city officials — much of what we do at Peterson would be much more difficult,” he said.

Peterson Air Force Base employs more than 10,000 personnel, including active duty, reserve, National Guard, Army and civilians, and has an annual economic impact of about $1.26 billion, according to 21st Space Wing Public Affairs.

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