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Oldest GPS satellite being prepared for disposal

by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
50th Space Wing Public Affairs

3/17/2007 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFNEWS) -- The oldest operational satellite in the GPS constellation has broadcast its signal for more than 16 years, during which time that signal's mission applications -- and the people who make sure the signal is available -- have changed dramatically.

When Satellite Vehicle Number 15 launched Oct. 1, 1990, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., the 2nd Space Operations Squadron's mission was markedly different from what it is today, the 2nd SOPS commander noted.

"We did a great job of telemetry, tracking and control for satellites (when SVN-15 was launched)," Lt. Col. Kurt Kuntzelman said. "The mission today has expanded focus from pure satellite command and control to include effects-based operations."

Today, 2nd SOPS provides precision navigation and timing combat effects for war fighters around the world.

"We used to work our shifts, and as long as the satellites were broadcasting their signal and everything looked good on telemetry, we'd pat ourselves on the back," Colonel Kuntzelmen said. "But we didn't really have an appreciation for how people were using that signal. Now we're growing our user operations focus."

Colonel Kuntzelman was a second lieutenant at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., when SVN-15 became operational. At the time, the logistics plans and programs officer was helping to convert B-1B Lancers from a strategic to a conventional role in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

The Air Force used unguided and laser-guided munitions against Iraqi ground forces during Desert Storm. When the United States entered Iraq again in March 2003, the majority of air-to-ground munitions were GPS-aided.

"In a way, it's come around full circle for me," Colonel Kuntzelman said.

The colonel first became interested in space while working at U.S. Space Command and North American Aerospace Defense in future logistics and sustainment of space systems.

"My colonel was an aircraft maintenance officer who had transitioned into space," Colonel Kuntzelman said. "He took me under his arm and said, 'Logistics is privatizing and outsourcing, and you're going to need to get some operational experience.' I had a conference with my wife ... and we decided to give space operations a shot."

Colonel Kuntzelman went to Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in 1998 for space undergraduate training. When he graduated, he came to his first assignment choice: the GPS mission at Schriever.

"Space operations was a growing career field, and GPS is the flagship (satellite) of (Air Force) Space Command," he said. "So if you're going to do something, you might as well be part of the best."

Meanwhile, SVN-15 reached the end of its design life ... and kept ticking.

The change in focus from flying satellites to delivering combat effects has contributed to other GPS-based programs such as the small-diameter bomb and the Joint Precision Airdrop System, he said. Reservists with 19th SOPS are also playing an increasingly critical role in GPS operations.

In addition, civil applications have grown exponentially. GPS' use in a wide variety of navigational and financial applications, which has resulted in calls from Australian farmers, people navigating city streets and even a golfer.

"My father's an avid golfer," Colonel Kuntzelman said, smiling. "He gave me a call and told me he came up short with his 9-iron, and he tried to blame it on me for giving him the wrong GPS signal. He said it gave him the wrong yardage. Apparently it cost him a couple of bucks with his buddies."

In October 2005, SVN-15 (nicknamed "Firebird" by Boeing) turned 15. It had lived twice as long as its original design life and kept going. Recently, however, the aging satellite developed heart trouble.

"The operational clocks eventually couldn't maintain their signal within specs," Colonel Kuntzelman said.

Something didn't necessarily go wrong -- rather, everything went right for nearly nine years longer than engineers and satellite operators could have expected, the colonel added.

Satellite control authority for SVN-15 transitioned to 1st SOPS March 14. After end-of-life testing that will take about a month, they will boost the satellite into a disposal orbit.

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