by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Stoltz, 45th Space Wing Public Affairs
April 19, 2018
On January 19, 2018 ... the fourth piece in the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, was successfully launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, completing the SBIRS 'constellation' – a network of satellites allowing unparalleled defense capability for the United States.
Hundreds of hands, ranging from engineers, Airmen, generals, technicians, rocket scientists, electricians, programmers and many more, assisted in this launch. But how did Team Patrick-Cape lend a hand?
From accepting the payload, to delivering it to the launch site, to assisting with processing the satellite and then executing the actual launch – the 45th Launch Group has a team, named “The Mission Assurance Triad,” who ensures launches are executed flawlessly.
Cool name – but what exactly is The Triad?
The Triad, as its name implies, consists of three parts. These three sections work together daily and combine their technical discipline, knowledge, and decades of expertise to ensure National Security Space missions are successful. Furthermore, the Air Force includes partners with industry-leading experts to assist in the mission assurance process, blending newly-minted Air Force engineers with civilian counterparts whose experience stretches back to the days of the Titan program.
“Our mission assurance triad works collaboratively with all of our stakeholders as the “eyes and ears” of the launch vehicle and space vehicle program offices here at the launch site,” said Colonel Steven Lang, 45th Launch Group commander. “We make sure the flight hardware is delivered, transported, and integrated properly to ensure mission success.”
According to Col. Lang, the Triad identifies, assesses, and mitigates risk at the launch site, so all flight hardware works as intended – ensuring the spacecraft safely reaches its perfect orbit.
The Triad consists of three main groups – Mission Assurance Technicians, Air Force Responsible Engineers, and Aerospace Responsible Engineers.
Mission Assurance Technicians (MAT)
Mission Assurance Technicians serve as technical maintenance assurance experts. They provide the technical insight for the government on launch processing activities, utilizing their experience from previous tours. MAT’s come from previous AF missile maintenance tours, where their expertise in their respective fields lend to assuring the platforms are safe and successful.
From ensuring contractors meet safety standards to ensuring adherence to technical procedures, the MAT’s are the ground-level experts who help guarantee everything is done properly.
“The greatest reward of being part of this mission is an upfront ticket to the defense of our nation,” said Technical Sergeant Omar Ashraf, 45th Launch Support Squadron lead mission assurance technician. “When I joined the Air Force, I wanted to help fight for and preserve the freedoms we are so fortunate to have. These systems we are launching into space do just that.”
TSgt. Ashraf, who previously served in the realm of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, said the biggest challenge is not becoming complacent in the work space, because complacency leads to mistakes.
“I feel this is one of the most important missions the United States executed in recent times,” said Ashraf. “This Department of Defense satellite is paid for by our tax dollars – it is imperative we are absolutely perfect in every action and decision we make.”
Air Force Responsible Engineers (AFRE)
Air Force Responsible Engineers are just that – responsible for management of the mission assurance triad to ensure the space vehicle is processed correctly. AFREs provide analysis of procedures and processing activities for technical risk assessment. They also oversee said procedures and products to ensure operation safety, suitability and effectiveness.
“Currently, I am the lead AFRE on the SBIRS Flight-4 mission,” said 2nd. Lt. John Bodeau, 45th Launch Support Squadron spacecraft launch operations engineer. “Our role serves as a ‘fresh set of eyes,’ as most of us are Lieutenants who just recently graduated from accredited engineering programs.”
Bodeau said the most important part of his job is his attention to detail.
“Even the smallest misstep in processing or testing can cause a large ripple throughout the entire system when it becomes operational,” he said.
While the team does its best to avoid mistakes in the first place, Lt. Bodeau said he and his fellow AFREs are active in the anomaly resolution process and we ensure that proper processes are followed to assess and address risk.
“Space is a harsh environment that punishes mistakes,” said Lt. Bodeau. “However, it is also a frontier that encourages humans to explore, innovate and work together to accomplish seemingly impossible things.”
Aerospace Responsible Engineers (ARE)
The Aerospace Responsible Engineers are the federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) side to the Triad's operation. With industry-leading personnel who have worked and currently work at the forefront of space, these experts lend their decades of knowledge to the mission – making this team the most knowledgeable on the entire planet in their respective fields of expertise.
The AREs provide procedure reviews, post-test data reviews, independent anomaly assessments, real-time test and operations support to include problem identification and resolution. Furthermore, the AREs provide their data, technical assessments and input contributing to flight worthiness and risk reports.
“We (ARE’s) provide mission assurance support here at the Cape,” said Edward Salazar, aerospace responsible engineer for the SBIRS program. “My main role is to mentor the young officers on aspects of mission assurance operations and help them understand the optimal way of interfacing and communicating with mission contractors in their mission assurance operations role. I have more than 40 years of experience and have worked on everything from building satellite and ground support equipment to testing and launching modules of the International Space Station.”
In addition to mentoring the Air Force Responsible Engineers, Mr. Salazar said his group provides mission assurance for various projects who arrive at the cape – but do not have a fully-manned and experienced team of their own to execute the roles necessary for successful processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“The process can be time-consuming and often difficult,” said Mr. Salazar. “But completing a project and watching it launch into space successfully is the greatest reward.”
The mission was a success. What now?
Although much can be learned from a failed launch, there is a lot the team learns from a successful mission.
According to Lt. Bodeau and TSgt. Ashraf, the team collects and analyses all data from all launches. In addition to applying the data during continual process, The Triad is able to learn more about what went right (or wrong) with the launch. The Triad can then apply the lessons learned to better manage and mitigate risk in the future.
"I would like to thank each and every member of the team for the amazing work they have accomplished," said Col. Lang. "The MA Triad played an integral role in the successful launch of this mission, where the satellite is at the highest risk in its life-cycle.”
Colonel Lang added the mission is a team-effort, and they couldn’t reach mission completion alone.
“If it is not for the SFS members executing entry-control procedures at the gate, finance officers making sure we get paid and all the other personnel at PAFB supporting the men and women of the 45th Launch Group, the Triad would not be able to deliver the engineering rigor and focus that is required for such a high-priority mission,” he said.
“It takes the whole Shark team to achieve 100% mission success."