Space pros reflect on history of GPS satellite No. 15
AIR FORCE NEWS RELEASE
Posted: April 18, 2007
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- A Boeing representative visited Schriever recently to recall the history of GPS Satellite Vehicle Number 15 and join space professionals in a final farewell to the oldest GPS satellite in history.
Frank Czopek, the GPS Block II and IIA project manager, recalled SVN-15's rocky start before it got off the ground as well as its history once it became operational in 1990.
"They (the GPS team) had a technician who was on from another spacecraft program," Mr. Czopek explained. "He decided that he would 'safe' the vehicle. Since it was going to be the weekend, everyone said to go ahead and do that.
"One of the ways you safe a vehicle is to cover all the connectors that are exposed on the test ports. He grabbed a shorting plug and placed it on the bottom of the spacecraft," he continued.
The shorting plug sparked a fire that quickly spread inside the spacecraft.
"The three batteries went into a dead short," he said. "It caught the cables on fire, and (the fire) began to go into the body of the satellite."
The intense heat welded the shorting plug onto the body of the satellite, preventing technicians from getting to the source of the fire. Instead, they opened up panels on the side of the satellite.
"Please count, and if you do, you'll notice there are 33 screws that hold each of these diagonal panels in place," Mr. Czopek noted, referring to a diagram of the satellite. "So guys with spin wrenches were on there, furiously trying to take this off; at the same time, smoke was seeping out of the vehicle." The fire department showed up moments later and put the fire out with an extinguisher.
After repairs and recertification, SVN-15 launched Oct. 1, 1990, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Its Apogee Kick Motor propelled it from low to mid-Earth orbit Oct. 4, the same day that East and West Germany officially became one nation.
Space operators finished stabilizing the satellite's orbit Oct. 10. It began transmitting its L-1 signal Oct. 19. This was quicker than the usual 30-day turnaround for a GPS satellite -- and with good reason, explained 50th Space Wing Commander Col. John Hyten.
"In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait," Colonel Hyten said. "Shortly after that event, we launched SVN-15. Our nation was preparing for war for the first time in a long time."
SVN-15 and the rest of the GPS constellation supported Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm -- the first time the system was used in major combat. Fifteen years later, GPS is ubiquitous in theater.
"The capabilities of satellites like SVN-15 have changed the entire way that the United States conducts warfare," the colonel said. "We can't even imagine how we would conduct warfare without it."
The satellite broadcast its L-1 signal through Aug. 21, 2006, the last day it was in "healthy" status. Its history of anomalies was about average for a GPS satellite, Mr. Czopek said.
"What really brought the satellite down was successive rubidium clock failures in September and October," he said. "That's what finally made this vehicle stop. We probably could have gotten two more years out of it, but it performed pretty well."
Lt. Col. Kuntzelman, 2nd Space Operations Squadron commander, might classify "pretty well" as an understatement.
"SVN-15 has really done a tremendous job," Colonel Kuntzelman said. "It's a tribute to the entire (space operations) community."
During the satellite's lifetime, 2nd SOPS conducted about 18,000 sorties, or support operations, on SVN-15. They also sent approximately 420,000 commands up to the satellite, Colonel Kuntzelman said.
"This really is a tribute -- not just to Boeing but to the entire acquisition community, our operations community, 1st SOPS and our Reserve Associate Unit (19th SOPS). Thank you. We couldn't have accomplished a lot of these milestones without your support."
Airmen with 1st SOPS assumed satellite control authority, or SCA, of SVN-15 earlier that day and will move the satellite into a disposal orbit after end-of-life testing. Lt. Col. Craig Bomberg, 1st SOPS commander, joined Colonel Kuntzelman to commemorate the SCA handover with a football toss.
"We're celebrating the oldest GPS satellite in the constellation, but it's just one satellite--one part of the whole system," Colonel Bomberg said. "Any satellite, no matter how long it lives, can't do much by itself.
Similarly, it's all of us -- 1st SOPS and 2nd SOPS, the Reserve component, the contractor component and the system program office -- that make the team work," Colonel Bomberg added. "We're really proud that we've been part of that team."