May 18, 2014
Most of the work of Air Force Space Command remains shrouded in secrecy.
Communications, intelligence gathering, and even the wildly popular Global Positioning System exist in a classified world in Colorado Springs, out of public view by impressive security.
But one system controlled part of the time by airmen inside the prisonlike fences at Schriever Air Force Base couldn't be more public.
The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program's data can be purchased online. It's $16 for the first orbit and $5 for each additional orbit.
"It's an exciting mission," said Tech. Sgt. David Hodge of Schriever's 310th Space Wing, which shares control of the satellites with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It's the oldest satellite mission in Colorado Springs and served as a part of the foundation for growth in the Pikes Peak region's space industry.
The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program started as a classified program in the 1960s that used cutting-edge technology to give the military highly accurate weather forecasts over the battlefield.
Flying 450 miles above earth at 18,500 mph, the satellites send down pictures of the atmosphere in black and white and infrared.
The images of clouds were revolutionary at the start, but have become a key ingredient of the evening news, with forecasters using satellite imagery to explain the weather.
"The data goes to everyone," Hodge said.
From the 1960s to 2014, the satellites have kept flying with few changes. The most recent addition to the weather forecasting fleet was launched in April.
"It's a robust system," said the 310th's Lt. Col. Stephen Pirner.
Most of the time, the weather satellites are flown by NOAA technicians in Maryland. The 310th, the Air Force Reserve's sole space wing, has crews on stand-by to take over operations when needed and takes regular turns flying the satellites.
Col. Sal Mineo, the 310th's commander, said the wing provides reserve airmen to bolster the regular Air Force's satellite units.
He said the reservists often hold civilian jobs in the Pikes Peak region's wealth of space businesses and bring that experience to their part-time military duty.
"We are leveraging the civilian space industry on the military side of the house," Mineo said.
The work can be nerve-racking. The satellites fly low and fast, so contact with antennas on the ground is limited to short windows.
During those brief periods of contact - "touches" - controllers have to download weather data and upload new commands.
"Literally, seconds can make a big difference," said Capt. Jonathan Lee, as he prepared to make contact with one of the satellites as it flew over the Pacific Ocean.
The systems used to fly the weather birds are frozen somewhere in the 1980s. Screens show quick-flashing Unix-based text that only a middle-aged programmer could love. It was last upgraded in the 1990s.
The pictures are shot in long strips that show clouds, ocean waves and polar ice.
The satellite operators are a superstitious bunch, who frequently knock on wood and hate words like "anomaly."
"So far, so good," said Senior Airman Marta Milczarek-McDonald as she controlled one of the satellites.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Waller said the newest satellite in the constellation is functioning perfectly.
"This is not the shiniest weapons system, but it is very reliable," she said.
And the future is bright for weather satellites.
Air Force Space Command is working on a replacement for the satellites now in use.
Mineo said that means the 310th's role will remain critical to the military.
"We're safe in that being a mission for years to come," he said.