Air Force leaders rolled up the guidon of the 20th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) Detachment One for the final time during a merger ceremony Oct. 1 at Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren.
Employees of the 20th SPCS detachment were officially reassigned to the 614th Air and Space Operations Center Detachment One, also located at NSF Dahlgren, as part of the realignment. The iconic AN/FPS-133 “Space Fence” radar-which served the nation for more than 52 years as the Naval Space Surveillance System (NAVSPASUR) and later as the Air Force Space Surveillance System-was officially decommissioned as part of the realignment. The world’s first system capable of tracking satellites was switched off a month earlier on Sept. 1.
Navy’s initial development of the Fence began in the earliest years of the “Space Race,” when the United States and the Soviet Union took their Cold War rivalry beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The Soviets shocked the U.S. and the world with its successful launch of Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957. In response, the Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower established the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The new organization directed the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to create a satellite tracking network.
A Space Surveillance Observation Center was initially established in Dahlgren at what was then the Naval Weapons Laboratory because the facility possessed the Navy’s only computer powerful enough to process the data produced by three transmitters and six receivers in the southern U.S. that comprised the Fence radar.
The system’s VHF radar tracked space debris and satellites at altitudes of up to 15,000 nautical miles. The observations came immediately. Fence employees soon identified a piece of Discoverer 8 and pieces of Sputnik 4 in the spring of 1960. On Feb. 1, 1961, Navy commissioned the Naval Space Surveillance System at Dahlgren as the service’s first operational space command, and assigned the command with the responsibility for maintaining and operating the new surveillance radar.
Observation data collected by the NAVSPASUR Fence was sent to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Space Surveillance Center at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo. In 1984, NAVSPASUR took on an expanded mission as the Alternate Space Control Center for NORAD, with a backup command and control mission and a primary mission of processing observation data.
In 2004, the Secretary of Defense directed the Air Force to assume management of the Fence. On Oct. 1 that year, 20th SPCS Detachment One was established at Dahlgren to continue operation of the Fence, then renamed as the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS).
Employees with 20th SPCS Detachment One who supported Fence operations paid tribute to its legendary history at the ceremony.
“The Fence advertised basketball-sized object detection capability, but routinely tracked smaller objects,” said Scott Leonard, operations officer at the 614th AOC Detachment One. “Producing almost 50 percent of the total sensor observations accumulated over the entire space network, the Fence was considered the most economical, productive and reliable of all space sensors.
“Although there are approximately two dozen radar and optical sensors in the Air Force,” said Leonard, “the Fence’s all-weather, un-cued detection capability was unique for near-Earth satellites, as well as deep space.”
Ken St. Clair, networking technical lead at the 20th SPCS Detachment One, spent more than three decades at the Fence and described the way it evolved over the years.
“In the early days, the data being received by the six receiver sites was viewed and manually processed via six Sanborn recorders,” he said.
“The Sanborn recorders etched squiggly lines on hot wax paper, sort of like lie detectors.”
Analysts viewed the observations as they came into Dahlgren in real time. “When they saw the telltale signs of an object passing through, they would mark it, mark the time on it and then later manually inject the data into the [Naval Ordnance Relay Calculator] processor that belonged to what was at the time the Naval Weapons Lab to calculate orbits and track objects,” said St. Clair.
“This method was fine for tracking a small amount of objects, but as more and more objects arrived in space, they recognized the need for automated processing. A computer system to do that type of function did not exist, so the men and women of the Naval Space Surveillance Center at the time built their own computer system. They called it the Automated Digital Data Assembly System.”
The room-sized ADDAS system was upgraded over the years, as were the receiver and transmitter sites. What did not change was the camaraderie of the Fence watch standers, who tracked orbiting objects 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Through all the changes, the people were constant,” said St. Clair.
“When I came here in 1980, the people I was involved with were friendly; it was like a family.”
Though the Fence is off, watching the skies is as important as ever and St. Clair said he looked forward to continuing his service.
“We started [as the] Naval Space Surveillance System,” he said. “We became Naval Space Command; we became Naval Network and Space Operations Command. We became the 20th Space Control Squadron Detachment One.
Today, we become the 61th Air and Space Operations Command Detachment One. [We’re] part of the team, part of the family.”