Capturing Space

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Matthew Bates
  • Airman Magazine

Pulling up the hood of his parka and bracing for the cold, Capt. Shahn Rashid opens the door and heads outside. The wind, near 20 miles per hour, is chilling, and he tugs on the parka’s zipper, willing it to go higher.


The irony of this action isn’t lost on the captain.

“This is ridiculous,” he mutters. “I’m in Hawaii, and I’m wearing a parka.”

He’s okay with it, though. It’s a small price to pay for the view.

Above him, as far as he

can see, the sky is illuminated with stars. The Milky Way, which he’d only seen in photographs and movies, is directly overhead – so large and bright and real it’s as if he could simply reach out his hand and touch it.

He stares up at the sky and is awed, and, even though he’s seen this same view for the past few months, he said he feels like he’s seeing it for the first time.

He forgets the cold and the biting wind and the fact that 10,000 feet below, hundreds of shorts- and sandal-clad tourists are drinking mai tais, taking moon-lit walks on white sand beaches and enjoying a pleasant, 75-degree evening on the island of Maui.

Then, tearing his eyes away, Rashid heads back inside to look at a computer monitor and gather data to help the Air Force make sure some of the stars he was just looking at don’t crash into each other.

“Star” Tracker

In reality, these “stars” Rashid tracks aren’t really stars at all. They are man-made objects orbiting the Earth – machine-like satellites, as well as spent rocket bodies and bits of space debris.

Rashid is commander of Detachment 3 of the 21st Operations Group, which belongs to the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.; though Detachment 3 is nowhere near Colorado. It’s a dedicated space surveillance unit located thousands of miles away atop the summit of Haleakala, a dormant volcano on the island of Maui.

Rashid is responsible for Air Force Space Command’s Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep-Space Surveillance unit, which is located within the Maui Space Surveillance Complex.

The GEODSS network, operated by the 21st SW, can track objects the size of a basketball more than 20,000 miles in space, is made up of nine telescopes at three sites: One in Socorro, New Mexico, at the White Sands Missile Range; another on Diego Garcia, a small atoll in the Indian Ocean; and the one Rashid is responsible for on Maui. Together, these sites provide nearly complete coverage of the Earth’s geosynchronous orbital belt and deliver nearly 80 percent of all geosynchronous observations.

“Currently it’s estimated that approximately 500,000 objects orbit around Earth, and we only have the ability to track about 23,000 of them,” he said. “Since 1982, this GEODSS site has been key in tracking orbiting objects to make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be and that they don’t crash into each other.”

This task is becoming increasingly difficult. A decade ago, there were only a few thousand objects – things ranging from weather, navigation, missile defense and communications satellites; to “space junk,” such as spent launch vehicles and satellite collision debris – orbiting the Earth. The number being tracked has quadrupled since and is still on the rise.

GEODSS tracks space objects through the use of reflected sunlight, and thus can only operate on clear nights.

“If it’s cloudy, then telescopes can’t see the light reflected from objects in space,” Rashid said. “So Maui works well as a location because we’re so high above sea level and the clouds are typically several thousand feet below the facility.”

Location, Location, Location

This isn’t the only reason the Air Force chose Maui. There are actually some unique advantages to placing the facility atop a dormant volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“The running joke is that the Air Force chose Maui as the location for the space surveillance complex because it was Maui,” Rashid said. “But, while being stationed on Maui is nice, there are actually real benefits to the facility’s location atop Haleakala.”

One is the weather. The clear skies and stable air above Hawaii’s volcanic peaks make for a prime location to view space – one of the best in the world, in fact. Since there is minimal light pollution from surface sources, astronomers have long held to the claim that Haleakala offers one of the “cleanest” vantage points to view stars, satellites, or anything else in the Earth’s night sky.

“So those are the upsides to being up here on a volcano,” Rashid said. “But there are some downsides – mainly for the people who work here.”

The cold is one of them. While the average high on Maui is in the mid-80s and the average low is in the 70s, on Haleakala these numbers drop dramatically. The average high is in the 50s and 60s and lows can reach below freezing.

“Add to that the fact it is typically windy, and it can get pretty chilly up here,” Rashid said.

Then, there’s the drive, which can take upwards of two hours to traverse … each way.

The drive is beautiful, however, passing from lush, tropical scenery and turning into a rocky, barren landscape with views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding islands.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on that road,” Rashid said. “And every time I get to the top, it still amazes me. The view of Maui is awesome.”

The Final Frontier

It’s the view of space the Air Force is interested in. Space, after all, is part of the service’s domain and fits into several of its core missions. Satellites are used in intelligence gathering, navigation and communications. Situational awareness of what’s occurring with those satellites in the space domain above Earth is critical to sustaining those systems and supporting our joint force commanders, the nation and users worldwide.

“Space situational awareness absolutely underpins all that we do in space, from launch all the way up through space operations. We depend on SSA to let us know what’s going on in the space environment,” said Gen. William Shelton, the AFSPC commander. “And almost every aspect of military operations involves space and cyberspace systems in some fashion.”

Sitting atop a volcano, Rashid understands this. He knows the cold, wind and long hours are all worth it. Not because he gets to see some of the most spectacular views of space every time he goes to work, but because, miles above the Earth, he’s helping to ensure space capabilities provide a decisive advantage for the nation’s warfighters.

Rashid, and the rest of the folks at the Maui Space Complex make sure those objects are where they should be, doing what they should be doing.

“But, yeah, the view is a killer perk,” he said.