Air Force Academy Looks to Become a Place for Space

The U.S. Air Force Academy has long been the training ground for cadets headed for careers in military space. But with the creation of a Space Force, the Colorado school is looking to expand the opportunities available to space-minded students.

“Where do you go if you want to be a pilot? I think most people would say, you go to the Air Force Academy if you want to fly in the United States Air Force,” Col. Jeffrey H. Greenwood, USAFA’s Space Force liaison, recently told Air Force Magazine. “I want that same mentality of, if you want to serve in the United States Space Force, then you come to the United States Space Force’s academy, and that’s here at USAFA.”

The Space Force, which falls under the Department of the Air Force, does not currently plan to establish its own service academy. Instead, USAFA brought in Greenwood in July to change up the space education experience. He’s modeling the Space Force detachment on the Marine Corps’ presence at the U.S. Naval Academy, alongside about 30 USAFA staffers who form the core of the school’s new Space Force detachment.

For starters, Greenwood launched a space introduction day that teaches incoming freshmen about opportunities in the Space Force and how to become an ideal candidate for the new service. Even before students vie for their preferred career fields as upperclassmen, the introduction day shows freshmen which majors and minors they could pick on their way to the Space Force, and which clubs and research programs might pique their interest.

“That was a great opportunity to hit them right away, right after basic training, to inform them on what opportunities lay before them at the academy and beyond,” he said.

USAFA already boasts an astronautics department where students can learn about space hands-on, for credit or as an extracurricular. Majors include astronautical engineering and space operations; cadets can design and fly test satellites with the Air Force Research Laboratory through the FalconSat program. They can also join the astronomy and physics club for planetarium trips and other experiments outside of class.

What’s new in the classroom this year is a space warfighting minor in one of four fields: operations, intelligence, acquisition, or cyber. Now cadets can major in fields like economics or political science while still adding space flavor to their education.

USAFA also created a space-focused Institute for Future Conflict that will look at ways to better integrate air, space, cyber, and other domains in combat. Greenwood said he’s trying to set up events for cadets at a Boeing-run wargaming center nearby as well.

As cadets get older, they will have access to a growing range of work experience programs. Greenwood is setting up a space mentorship program that pairs students with USAFA alumni in the Colorado Springs area, a longtime military space hub. “Ops Space Force,” a separate venture modeled after an existing Air Force career-shadowing initiative, will tentatively debut next summer.

A “bridging experience” can give seniors chosen for the Space Force more preparation for the real world, too. Greenwood envisions those students might visit the ops groups now known as deltas to sit in on daily satellite, radar, or launch missions, or spend a week with SpaceX or the United Launch Alliance to better understand the industry side.

“The intent is to try to integrate space across USAFA so that it’s not just the astro department, or it’s just the physics department, or the commanders over here are doing a career day for the cadets,” Greenwood said. “It’s bringing it all together so that there’s a cohesive space message being relayed to the cadets.”

He’s trying to be more intentional about building USAFA’s space education pipeline as well. The school is growing more selective after graduating more than 80 cadets into the Space Force for the first time in April.

USAFA held its first Space Force assignment board, choosing the top 60 prospects out of 443 candidates to join the service as space operators in 2021. There’s a similar process for people in support fields like acquisition.

Ninety-eight of the 256 officers who will commission into the Space Force into 2021 will come from USAFA, Greenwood said. The rest will join through the Reserve Officer Training Corps and Officer Training School. He expects USAFA will typically turn out around 80 Space Force second lieutenants each year.

The selection process will look a little different for the class of 2022: Everyone must be interviewed for a shot at joining the Space Force. Greenwood said the service was wrestling with how technical those discussions should be, and how to get a good sense of someone’s character and talent.

Cadets are asked open-ended questions like what qualifies them to be part of the Space Force, and in what situations they’ve had to think outside the box. Interview topics will evolve as the Space Force figures out its own culture and mission needs.

“It’s trying to find that balance of techy and leader in there,” Greenwood said, adding that other factors still matter in the selection process. “I don’t know if we’re necessarily going to get it right this first year.”

USAFA is the main guinea pig for trying out the new interviews, and will share its lessons learned with ROTC and OTS. All three commissioning sources want to take similar approaches for the class of 2023 and beyond.

The academy has asked third-year students for their career preferences and began narrowing the field on Nov. 4. Sixteen generals are conducting the one-on-one interviews with 104 candidates until Dec. 4, then settling on a final group of 60 space operators, two intel officers, two cyber officers, 10 engineers, and 11 acquisition personnel.

Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond and Vice CSO Gen. David D. Thompson will grill 20 cadets in January to make sure USAFA’s picks are on track.

Still, plans are changing even as officials piece together the future cohort.

“We did not experience the same amount of interest for the Class of 2022 as we did for 2021, so we’ve had to modify our process,” Greenwood said in a Nov. 25 email. They’re seeing less diversity than expected, with lots of management majors but fewer astronautics, math, and physics students.

All 104 cadets currently being vetted must resubmit themselves for consideration under the Air Force’s process early next year, to see if people who don’t get a first-choice job in the Air Force will head for the Space Force instead.

“There may be cadets out there who really want to fly, but if they don’t get a pilot slot, they may want to do space as a second choice,” Greenwood said. “If we have additional candidates … then we would have to conduct a second round or interview in the April/May timeframe to ensure we interview all potential candidates.”

If no other cadets turn to space in the spring, USAFA will continue with the pool of 85 officer-selects being vetted right now. Greenwood acknowledged changes in the selection schedule have frustrated students, but said the school just wants the best for the Space Force.

Going forward, the academy hopes to continue growing its space offerings once the ongoing coronavirus pandemic subsides. The virus has put a damper on everything from celebrations for the class of 2021 to in-person job shadowing and regular club meetings.

But there’s a silver lining: Nearly one-third of people in the class of 2024—a group of around 1,100 students—who responded to a recent USAFA survey said they are interested in joining the Space Force. Underclassmen are signing up in record numbers for the Cadet Space Operations Squadron that works with FalconSats, and students say they are more informed about the cosmos than before.

“USAFA always talks about the ‘long blue line,’” Greenwood said. “We’re creating a ‘long black line.’”