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When I was very, very young I remember watching a particular movie. In it, the protagonists were misfits, non-athletic, good with computers, had social problems, bad hygiene, a style that might optimistically be called “kindergarten,” were generally pretty smart, and came from varied backgrounds. The bad guys were the establishment, the jocks, the moneyed set, people with good teeth who had all the complexity of a child’s coloring book, and they were very, very white. The setting was a college campus, and the good guys needed to somehow affiliate with a fraternity. The bad guys didn’t want this to happen, and that pretty much sums up the beginning of “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Which is why I felt like I was reading the movie’s premise when I looked at SpaceNews.com this week. This post , quoting comments from ANOTHER Air Force general, was, if not surprising, then disappointing. It’s also concerning and astonishing, because here is someone who obviously hasn’t been in U.S. military space for very long, but certainly wants everyone to know he’s the warrior in charge. Like a jock might. And marking territory is very important to a jock, so why not mark the very people that he is supposed to lead?
Let’s cover the disappointment first. The assumption that space operators in the USAF don’t understand they are war fighters is insulting and wrong. Let’s assume for the moment that someone who is smart enough to work in the military and in a position of not having to worry too much about being shot at while ensuring the right people stay alive and the targets are identified/eliminated, is probably someone who is aware of being part of a warrior culture. And let’s not forget the force multiplication that normally comes with military space operations.
A SBIRS crew, for example, knows how critical it is to get information to the people who need it quickly, and may potentially not just save a comrade’s neck–they could potentially save millions. A GPS crew knows timing is important. Their actions allows other warfighters the luxury of staying out of harm’s way, while sending expensive explosive packages very precisely to those nice people in hardened bunkers. Amazon’s got nuthin’ on them.
Just because they are in front of a screen at a ground station, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their duty. It certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t under potential attack. Just ask the Missileers in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Maybe it just means they are smarter. Just sayin’… but because I used to be one, I know better…at least on that score.
The concern and astonishment comes because, here is yet another general, who isn’t from any space background, who doesn’t understand space operators do have simulators. I think there’s a rather elaborate SBIRS simulator in Vandenberg for students. And I’m fairly certain the space operators on console have their scripts and sims when working in the real world too. I know SBIRS operators get a lot of real-world training–maybe even more than someone who flies a target through the air.
Each one of the space systems that operators work with has proficiency standards. Each space operations squadron has scripts, instructors, and evaluators. Does that mean things go perfectly? No, but it does mean crews are ready for whatever comes their way. The crews are presented with scenarios which may mix things that have happened in the past with things that are likely to happen.
By the way, the whole “baking in intelligence”–how the hell do you think space ops crews like those for SBIRS operate? Because these systems are considered low density and high demand, good intelligence is not optional. Does anyone really think space ops crews aren’t talking with another type of nerd, the intelligence weenie?
So, enough of this. I’ve seen it before. When I was in, we had bomber/fighter generals leading us too. For the most part, they ignored us and let us do our work. But I fear for of our space operators today. The jocks are in charge, and want to make sure the nerds learn the ways of the jock.
When will our beloved space crews ever get an outstanding leader? Good luck, folks!
4 thoughts on “Nerd Warriors in Space”
Hello John! Sadly, this isn’t the first time, and probably not the last time, I’ve read this type of mentality. When I was working as a contractor in a USAF facility (25+ years ago), we worked closely with our officer liaisons, who had to answer to the Mission Director. One of those commanders I remain in contact with to this day. Others, not so much…
We had a fighter-jock O-4 transfer in to become the new Mission Director. This particular MD didn’t want to be there, and was not very subtle about it. He ended up with some rather non-PC nicknames, though not to his face…
Thankfully he was only there for about 12 months, then finally got another PCS flying personnel transport aircraft for the USAF upper brass.
I hadn’t thought about that particular MD in years, but some things are not forgotten.
My point being that it isn’t just the USAF people on-console that are looked down-upon by people like this general, but also the contractors that support them. We are generally invisible to the public in general, and to most of the rest of the DoD service personnel as well.
May the folks on-console and those that support them keep up the good fight. They are all more important than most people realize.
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Hi Matt! Great to hear from you. It looks like things are going well for you.
To be clear, I consider the contractor support as part of crew. I was extremely dependent on contractors on crew. They were some of the best space operators I encountered, and took the mission seriously.
I hate to think how this general would view those guys.
All good points. As a fellow operator, I also don’t think there’s a culture problem in the ranks of the operators themselves. There are some serious issues with at the folks at the top though. I cringe when I hear “Space Corps” not because it’s a bad idea, but because I’m not sure the Generals at the top have the culture needed to make it work. So, for the 3rd time in 10 years the command brings in a zipper-suited sun god to run ops. Not a horrible idea because at least they tend to be decisive, but fighter pilots aren’t doing much better culture wise as they refuse to accept the mortality of their career field. The upshot is your commentary is dead on and timeless, at least going back to 2011 when they took our flight suits.
The opinions I’ve expressed are my own and not of any particular military service
Hi Eric! When you say “serious issues,” I agree. A spine would be a wonderful characteristic to help address those issues. And someone who actually understands the space missions. But the really serious issue is that while the USAF leadership keeps up lip-service about how important space is, and how much under threat we are from other space nations, the money indicates space is not a priority. Nor is there any indication to not only strengthen training, but how to fire up new operators. The last time I was at the Academy, not many cadets were interested in becoming a space operator. Whether this is because they are joining the “Air” Force, or because of the lack of emphasis on space during their training, I couldn’t say.