They are in the first Air Force Academy class to graduate early under quarantine conditions, but next Saturday will mark another first for 88 cadets.

With platinum sashes on the dress cadet uniforms to denote their status, they will raise their right hands and be sworn in as the Space Force's first lieutenants. At nearly 10% of the graduating class, it's the biggest crop of space-minded cadets to graduate from the academy and they'll form the cadre of the new service.

"We are incredibly excited about being a part of that," said senior cadet Aaron Brooks, a Birmingham, Mich.-native who turned his eyes toward the stars during his freshman year at the academy.

"We will really create a 21st century service," he pledged.

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The service, created in December, is the first new Pentagon branch created since the Air Force was formed in 1947. And, until the 88 cadets take their oath, Space Force has just two members, a general and a sergeant.

But cadets are especially prepared to join Space Force. The academy is the only school in the world where undergraduates build, launch and fly their own fleet of satellites. 

And those satellites, including FalconSat-6 launched in 2018, are no hobbyist toys. The spacecraft carry out real-world experiments for the Air Force Research Laboratory and help guide military leaders as they adopt new technologies.

Space Force chief Gen. Jay Raymond has already come by the academy to give a pep talk to his new lieutenants.

"It was pretty cool that he took the time out of his very busy schedule to tell us the role we will play as space force officers," said senior cadet, Ashley Nimmo, a native of Susanville, Calif., who is the fifth member of her family to join the military.

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Nimmo enlisted in the Air Force and served in medical administration before commanders recommended her for the academy.

"We think it is pretty cool that we will partake in such a historic moment," she said of her fellow Space Force cadets.

The 88 from the academy will head to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after graduation for a six-month crash course on space operations. Getting them into the space service despite the coronavirus was a key reason academy leaders decided to hold graduation six weeks early.

Coronavirus has changed many things at the academy. In March, the academy sent three-quarters of its cadets home while keeping the seniors in isolation on the 18,500-acre campus.

They lived on takeout meals in their dorm rooms and took online classes as they rushed to meet graduation requirements.

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The time has been touched by tragedy. Two members of the senior class died by suspected suicide in recent weeks.

"I think for all of us, it was an incredibly trying time at the academy," Brooks said.

But the trials of 2020 pulled the senior class together, Nimmo said. Despite social distancing that keeps them at a safe distance from classmates, the seniors have figured out ways to strengthen bonds built over four years at the school.

That family atmosphere built at the academy is something the cadets hope to instill in the new service they are joining. The Space Force has no traditions, and just a few months of history.

"We will now be the smallest branch and the newest branch," Nimmo said. "It will be a family."

At graduation, they will march 8 feet apart from their fellow cadets. Hugs and high-fives are out. The speaker, Vice President Mike Pence, will give his remarks over a video link.

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Their parents will watch online.

The whole ceremony, a four-hour-affair last year, will be over in 30 minutes.

But, Brooks and Nimmo said, it will still be a celebration and for Space Force cadets it will have special meaning to be the first.

"It is definitely going to be different," Brooks said. "But we have really made it our own. One big emphasis has been making this graduation our own."

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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