The Space Force’s Polaris Awards annually recognize Guardians who best represent the Guardian Spirit. There are four individual award categories based on each of the core Guardian values—Character, Connection, Commitment and Courage—and a Team Excellence category that combines all four values. Air & Space Forces Magazine is highlighting each of this year’s winners before they receive their awards on stage at the 2024 AFA Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo.
The U.S. Space Force selected Capt. Samantha J. Pereira of the 3rd Space Operations Squadron (3 SOPS) at Schriever Space Force Base, Colo., as the winner of the Polaris Award for Courage for “championing new ideas, accepting smart risks, and pursuing opportunities for innovation and mission success” in 2023.
The 3rd Space Operations squadron was only three years old when Pereira arrived in January 2023 to lead its engineering flight. At the time, the flight consisted of just her and two other Guardians.
“I remember gathering into a conference room being like, what the heck are we even supposed to be doing? What is our job?” Pereira said. “We spent numerous hours just outlining what the flight was supposed to look like.”
Pereira went to task mapping out a manning strategy to grow the flight into a mission-ready team of 16 engineers. She said the key to her plan was having an organized strategy to build the team her squadron needed—a strategy that required courage to present to her leadership.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into a squadron manning meeting before, but going in and asking for 15 people, you’re probably going to get laughed out of the room,” she said. “But I had a three-month manning plan, a six-month manning plan, a year plan, a five-year plan. … I think because we were so organized [is why] going to my leadership and asking for a total of 15 people ultimately worked out.”
Pereira said that in the three years since 3 SOPS was stood up, the engineering flight hadn’t been a priority for the squadron. Her presence and dedication changed that. By addressing the way the 3 SOPS was structured, Pereira created eight engineering roles and appointed three tactical-level teams, the equivalent of a 75 percent manning increase.
The restructure led to a significant improvement around the squadron. Her teams identified nearly 491 critical systems issues, developed 81 unique workarounds, and resolved 152 errors under her leadership.
In the chapter on Courage, the Guardian Handbook calls on Guardians to “highlight areas that can be improved and encourage their teammates to do the same. Innovation requires a creative environment that challenges the established norms.” Pereira has taken these words—especially “innovation”—to heart in order to drive change.
“A lot of the processes that other squadrons have, 3 SOPS didn’t at that point. So everything that we were doing was innovation,” Pereira said. “And they had pre-established processes that were hard to break. So we were saying, ‘Hey, let’s take a risk. Let’s stop what we’re doing to make this better.’”
Pereira’s courage and leadership led the team to win four individual awards, Delta 9’s Team of the Quarter, and the Delta’s nomination for the Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award. Under her leadership, the squadron developed an accountability and configuration control process, which led to the unit’s first security inspection pass rating.
“When people think of courage, they think of running into a burning building and rescuing people. That is definitely an act of courage, but there are small acts of courage that we can do every day that amount to something bigger, that serve as force multipliers in themselves,” Pereira said. “Sometimes you have to be bold to get to see the change that needs to happen or just to correct what’s wrong.”
Now that the Space Force is recognizing her on a national level with the 2023 Polaris Award for Courage, Pereira wants to encourage fellow Guardians—and all her fellow service members—to be bold, break barriers, and champion new ideas that advance the mission.
“If you’ve got an idea that you think could change things, change problems, whether on a Space Force level or just in your section, pursue it,” she said. “Get organized. Drive change. No matter what your rank is, or what your specialty code is, or the number of years of experience you have, everybody has the ability to solve problems and drive change. You just gotta get organized.”
Meet the other 2023 Polaris Award winners below: