Monday, July 22

Space Test Course integrates satellite operations into curriculum for first time > United States Space Force > Article Display

In a historic first, students from the Space Test Course at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School successfully operated a satellite in space from Edwards Air Force Base, May 20.

Previous classes have coordinated with commercial space providers to acquire satellite imagery to support multi-domain testing, dictating desired imagery and pass schedules, albeit without direct interaction with the satellite. May 20 marks the inaugural instance where U.S. Space Force STC Class 24A students issued commands to a satellite on orbit from Edwards thanks to a partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicle Directorate.

“We are working in partnership with the AFRL’s small satellite division to test remote satellite operations capabilities from Edwards,” explained Maj. Stefanie Coward, Space Test Operations chief at USAFTPS. “Some of their new tech demonstrator satellites operate on cloud-based ground systems. This opens the door to remote operations without a large infrastructure footprint. May 20 marked first contact with a satellite from XVI, but the full capability of remote operations was proven as four pairs of students, under the oversight of an AFRL flight director and XVI Operations engineer/subject matter expert, managed operations of XVI from Edwards for the entire week completing a total of 15 satellite contacts.”

The XVI satellite is approaching the end of its experiment campaign. But, based on the altitude of the orbit and the heritage of the satellite bus, there is a good chance XVI could continue residual operations for another three to five years. Both organizations are interested in using XVI’s residual capability to support USAFTPS as a spaceborne laboratory, providing Space Test Course students the same kinds of hands-on experience Flight Test Course students get flying in the C-12, T-38, and F-16.

With a forward-looking perspective, Coward explained with optimism that this milestone marks the initial step in an ongoing journey.

“This is a first, but not a last. We are working with AFRL to formalize this partnership and continue operating XVI with future classes,” she said. “The plan is to mirror the flight paradigm where TPS staff members formally qualify on a platform, and students go through a check-out process that allows them to perform operations under the supervision of a certified staff member. Do I see STC students one day going ‘crew solo’ on a satellite? I hope so. But there is a lot of work still left to do to get there.”