The Military Space Operator–After the Military

Transitioning as The New Civilian

When I left the U.S. Air Force, I was a space operator. After working in the military space world for 11 years, it seemed very obvious to me and the Air Force, that I was a space operator, but not to anyone in the civilian world. I spent nearly six months applying for related positions, trying to convince others of my qualifications, before I found work. It was frustrating.

I had the training and experience in various sub-disciplines related to or directly involved in space operations. When the USAF trains someone like me in space operations, they assign a special prefix denoting the corresponding specialty: 13S or 1C6 (officer or enlisted). Add some extra letters and numbers to the end of those three letters and numbers and it SEEMS the Air Force stays pretty happy about how they keep track of their space operations force.

The Problem

However, there are some wrinkles within the Air Force which obfuscate what a space operator is. Such complications are what might have hindered my job searches. In the USAF, being a space operator might mean a person’s job is acquiring the systems for missions in space. It might mean a person installs fiber for ground networks to talk with space systems or runs computer network operations. It might mean conducting system engineering or mission assurance for particular systems. It might mean intelligence analysis. At one time it meant maintaining and launching nuclear missiles. Each of these was the Air Force’s way to appear to beef up its space cadre. Some of us benefited from the Air Force’s efforts to “spread space.”

So, while being a 13S or 1C6 still means a trained space professional sitting at a computer command console, operating a space system, making sure a missile, rocket, or a satellite and its payload responds to commands, there are some other professions within the space operations category without those prefixes that might be related but need more explanation. Don’t get me wrong: the multiplicity of jobs within the space operations career-field is great for those who are willing to learn about the different space systems. It’s particularly interesting to the many who gain the technical chops and experience in the USAF without any science, technology, engineering, or other types of technical educational backgrounds.

The problem though, is that while it’s very interesting and quite educational to work for the USAF, there’s the question “What happens after my USAF career?” The USAF isn’t doing you any favors with its broadly applied “Space Operator” category. Because, for example, being an acquisitions program manager is not the same as conducting communications satellite upkeep or running satellite warning or space intelligence missions. Hiring managers in the civilian world may become confused by all the great experience a person gained as a program manager while that person calls him/herself a space operator. There’s also the problem that a good portion of space operations occur in the classified world, and an involved person can’t really say what they were doing in that world. So how can a person define what their part in the military space world is, without getting into trouble? How can a USAF space operator make their military space job relate, in very simple terms, to the civilian space world? With the broader question being, what does it mean to work in the space industry in the United States?

Stay tuned…

I have a few ideas about this, just based on my experience in writing about this industry over the past few years. My next post will attempt to elaborate some of the terms to help make those connections in the civilian world. Hopefully it will help you in your job searches.

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4 responses to “The Military Space Operator–After the Military

  1. I have the same issues having worked for a NASA progr

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  2. This is a problem that is not restricted to ex-military personnel. Even with all these “professional” helpers out there, finding appropriate opportunities is much more art (and luck) than science. If you can offer an improvement to the process, it would be a real game-changer.

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    • Hello Hank! I agree that this isn’t just restricted to ex-military. The whole space industry keeps hemorrhaging their expertise and people, while lamenting there is no one qualified to hire. Something is fishy there. That said, you are correct, although I’d add there’s a “Who you know” element to hiring, too. What I am thinking is there needs to be better definition of what different types of space operators are. It would be along particular lines of industry that I’ll elaborate on in a few days. It’s not really any game-changing process on my end. Just a few suggestions about how to make things a bit more clear.

      Thanks for the comment!

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