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DSP Satellite System Celebrates 40 Years

File image: Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite.
by Capt. Chris Castle
460th Operations Support Squadron
Buckley AFB CO (SPX) Nov 11, 2010
Tomorrow the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first launch of the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite. It was the beginnings of a satellite constellation that has been providing space-based infrared missile warning to our nation's leaders for four decades.

On, Nov. 6, 1970 the launch of the maiden DSP spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Fla. was accomplished.

During the last several decades, a dedicated team of scientists, engineers, acquisition specialists, civilian contractors and space professionals has ensured that the DSP system performed better than advertised and lasted much longer than designed.

Evidence of the spacecrafts' tenacity is shown by the fact that one of the satellites currently on-orbit has exceeded its design life more than four times over. The DSP story is one of technological innovation and dedicated professionalism.

"The Defense Support Program is in really good shape," said Col. Chance Saltzman, 460th Operations Group commander. "We have no desire to take any of those systems offline as the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) comes into being. Despite exceeding their designed lifespan four times over, DSP satellites will soldier on, operating alongside their successors."

From the first launch 40 years ago until today, the venerable satellite has stared down on the Earth from its geosynchronous orbit tens of thousands of miles above our planet's surface. Designed to detect the infra-red radiation emanating from Soviet missile launches, the constellation of spacecraft was designed and built by aerospace contractors TRW and Aerojet Corporation.

Later, in 2001 and 2002, Aerojet and TRW became part of part of Northrop Grumman Corporation and today, Northrop Grumman continues to sustain the on-orbit spacecraft through its facilities in Redondo Beach and Azuza, Calif. and at Buckley AFB.

The spacecraft is elegant in its simplicity, yet contains many complex subsystems and redundancies. As the years progressed and the need to establish and maintain a more sensitive and reliable space-based warning system increased, the DSP team upgraded and enhanced the satellite, producing four distinct design blocks.

"We continue to look subsystem by subsystem and satellite by satellite to see if there are any tactics we can employ to wring the most out of those satellites," said Colonel Saltzman.

Over the course of the last four decades, 23 DSP satellites were placed into orbit, allowing Air Force Space Command and its predecessor organizations to accomplish the demanding mission of constantly monitoring the globe for signs of an enemy missile attack.

Even more important than the impressive military hardware are the dedicated men and women who have labored tirelessly, often behind veils of official secrecy, to develop and operate the Defense Support Program. The program stands as a shining example of how professional integration - at all levels - can bring about amazing results.

"I've seen some of DSP's history here at Buckley myself," stated Lt. Col. Jennifer Jenkins, 2nd Space Warning Squadron commander and DSP devotee. "I was first assigned here as a lieutenant and now am back as the commander.

"I've seen a lot of changes in 16 years. But what hasn't changed is the amazing contribution that DSP continues to make to our nation's defense.

"It's very exciting to be involved in the day-to-day operations and to be working with this incredible group of professionals made up of active duty, guard, reserve and civilian Air Force members, our partner nations and our great contractor corps.

"We're well suited to keep DSP going well into the next generation of missile warning, the Space-Based Infrared System."

Using an industry team of contractors from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and the Aerospace Corporation, the private sector provides the critical expertise to keep the Air Force's space pros adequately supported, ensuring that the mission gets done.

Not only do the space professionals who man the consoles in the 460th Space Wing's Space Operations Center represent the active duty and reserve components of the United States Air Force, but foreign mission partners from Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom play an active role as well. Operating a global network of ground stations and communications networks, the DSP family is truly a global one.

To recognize these impressive accomplishments, the 460th Space Wing and the Air Force Association are hosting a series of events during the weekend. The Wing will open up the doors of the Mission Control Station, here at Buckley Air Force Base, to those men and women who have worked so hard over the years to get the program to where it is today.

In addition to the tours, the Wing will play host to a social event where coworkers from years gone by can reconnect and reestablish personal and professional ties.

Capping the weekend in grand style, a formal gala, organized by the Mile High Chapter of the Air Force Association, is to take place at the Denver Tech Center Marriott Hotel, where current and former Air Force leaders will mingle with program legends and the Airmen who execute the mission today.

So, to the men and women of the Defense Support Program, congratulations on achieving such a monumental and meaningful milestone!

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