The cadets sat in three virtual time zones. Computer screens illuminated their faces as they watched a cascade of visual satellite location information, Zoom communications from team members, and websites offering real-time data. 

In the late spring of 2020, the six cadets — all members of the Virginia Tech Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences — explored the realms of space-traffic management. They had volunteered for a space operations training exercise through the Joint Task Force — Space Defense, a section of the U.S. Space Command.

Joining the cadets in this Sprint Advanced Concept Training event were participants from the Virginia Tech Hume Center for National Security and Technology, an Air Force cadet from the University of Colorado Boulder, and the task force’s operational units and intelligence teams and civil, commercial, interagency, and international partners. 

“This is professional developmental training,” said Col. Eric Dorminey, commander of the Virginia Tech Air Force ROTC Detachment 875. “Our objective is to build and develop high-caliber second lieutenants to lead in the Air Force as commissioned officers. As part of our program, cadets must participate in professional development training events, and Air University — the professional education organization to which our program reports — encourages us to look for these opportunities within our universities. So, leveraging this training event is really just part my charter.”

Dorminey was able to offer the task force training opportunity to his cadets as a career space officer and a Sprint Advanced Concept Training operations center director. The cadets divided into three teams to develop techniques to integrate commercial providers into current and future space traffic management operations that support the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Commerce.

“The overall goal of the exercise was to work as a collective team with professionals from all over the globe and react to unknown problems within space regarding satellites,” said Mia Dill, a sophomore majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business. “This exercise is a mock drill to promote preparedness and explore space traffic management techniques.”

Each team represented an operations center in a different time zone: the Meridian or French, the Colorado or the Americas, and the Pacific or Australian. A cadet lead supervised each team, which included an upper-level student along with others in their first or second year at the university. Dorminey hopes that as they advance through the ROTC program, current participating first-year cadets will serve as cadet leads during future training events.

“This training provided insight into the potential responsibilities that Air Force officers in the Space Force would have,” said Kalvin Yuan, a senior majoring in management in the Pamplin College of Business. “As technology progresses and space reliance expands, being well versed in the emerging global challenges of the space domain and complex threats in this rising space age is critical.” 

Sprint Advanced Concept Training events last for one week. Monday is spent preparing. On Tuesday, Dorminey said, the exercise runs for 24 hours, with each operations center rotating through eight hours shifts in a relay fashion. The outgoing team briefs the incoming one and the latter then continues the operation. This day is called the first vulnerability window.

“We establish an environment of simulated data laid over real data,” Dorminey said. “This creates a realistic problem set where we can try new things with minimal risk to real-world operations. We can fail fast and fail forward, so we can rapidly develop solutions.”

Wednesday is a time for debriefing. What did they learn? What could be better? 

“Thursday is where the impact of the event becomes obvious,” Dorminey said. “On the first day, we run hard and fast. Errors are made and it can get messy. But on Wednesday, we debrief and learn an incredible amount. We then reset and run again on Thursday. The improvement between the two execution days is profound.” 

Friday is the final debrief to capture all the lessons to apply to future development. 

Although Dorminey quips that unlike most tasks that are not rocket science, this exercise is, though he said the cadets involved are a mix of business, science, and engineering majors.

“You don’t have to have a technical degree to be part of this exercise,” he said. “Much of the exercise involves complex problem-solving. Unique and diverse perspectives help build more creative and innovative answers. The perspectives of an engineer and how they confront a problem varies greatly from how an accountant or economist would view the same challenges. Having both in the mix makes for better overall solutions.”

To assist with the exercise, Dorminey enlisted the help of Jonathan Black, director of the Aerospace and Ocean Systems Laboratory in the Hume Center.

“The center is honored to be able to support Col. Dorminey and his goal of hands-on space education and training,” said Black. “We have worked previously with various Department of Defense and other U.S. government sponsors on applied, experiential research and educational programs, and we are looking forward to partnering with entities across and outside Virginia Tech to support the new U.S. Space Command and Space Force.”

The U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the Armed Forces, was established Dec. 20, 2019, within the Department of the Air Force. Its current organization and personnel are from the former long-standing Air Force Space Command, which launched in 1982.

For this exercise, the cadets created an application to track objects that approached NASA assets, such as the International Space Station. In 16 hours, they built a status board that included all pertinent and relevant data, along with a countdown clock for NASA operator and control room use.

“My role primarily involved keeping track of every conjunction that took place during the exercise and recording pertinent data provided by participating commercial vendors,” said Michael Luciani, a junior majoring in physics in the College of Science. “I had the pleasure of working with the Meridian team, and I was able to work alongside British and French space officials as well.”

The cadets also researched the online presences of commercial entities involved in space launches, such as satellite companies, to track their movements and inform the observations being made during the training event.

“The cadets’ ‘fresh eyes’ and perspectives were value added regardless of their degree background,” Dorminey said. “Their participation was integral to the event success. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Written by Leslie King