U.S. Space Force had existed for only 18 days when an early missile detection team from the 2nd Space Warning Squadron of the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, spotted the launch of 16 ballistic missiles headed from Iran toward Al Asad Air Base and other locations in Iraq on Jan. 8.
It was retaliation for a U.S. drone strike days earlier that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
An officer sent a warning to her counterparts at Al Asad, shaving seconds off the notification time.
"She did it so well, she did it so quickly, and they do this consistently, but it could have been the difference between ... well, we might be talking about dead Americans at Al Asad," said the Space Force's No. 2 officer, Gen. David "DT" Thompson, the vice chief of space operations.
"What a statement of who we are and what we are in what we mean to the joint force," Thompson said in a recent interview with Military.com.
While Thompson didn't identify the officer or Buckley team members, during a ceremony at the White House Friday, Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, the service's top general, lauded Capt. Tasia Reed and 1st Lt. Christianna Castaneda as instrumental members in the planning the mission's execution.
President Donald Trump made the Space Force a reality when he signed the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 20, 2019. It temporarily reassigned 16,000 airmen and civilians to the new branch and dissolved the Air Force's leading major command overseeing space, Air Force Space Command.
Leaders say the January missile warning and other high-profile operations are milestones to be proud of as the service marks its first birthday.
But with adversaries testing satellite-busting technology and other space weapons that could wreak havoc on rank-and-file troops' operations, the Space Force says it is focused on the mission.
"Over the years, the United States has been good at quickly responding to crises," Thompson said. "But we far too often have to respond in crisis because we haven't foreseen and prepared for the day when the crisis occurred.
"What I say here is, our national leadership has foreseen the day we will need these [space] capabilities in a true warfighting sense. ... By doing this now, by making it clear, [we're showing] our people and our friends and our adversaries that we're more likely to deter and avoid that crisis coming," he added.
Who Makes Up the Space Force
The military relies heavily on space-based technologies to keep its edge on the battlefield, with some members devoted to supplying satellite communications and others to protect them.
But when Congress mandated that the new service had to use existing personnel -- to limit redundancy and bureaucratic bloat -- the Space Force looked to the Air Force to transfer its space specialties.
To date, roughly 2,200 members in "organic" space careers -- such as space operations and space systems operations -- have transferred from the Air Force.
The Space Force said in September that 2,400 members were slated for transfer; some are waiting for promotion boards and other processes to conclude, according to spokeswoman Lynn Kirby.
The service has also selected 3,600 members in common specialties -- jobs that fit both the Air Force and Space Force, including those in intelligence, cyber, acquisition and engineering -- to transfer starting in February. Of those, 1,900 are officers and 1,700 are enlisted. (About 30 enlisted members were part of an early transfer that began Dec. 1.)
Earlier this month, seven recruits graduated Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, Texas, where they were given tablets loaded with Space Force-specific doctrine and information; instructors and mentors were available to talk about their duties.
There are another 13 trainees currently at BMT, with seven more scheduled to arrive later this month, according to the service.
The Space Force hopes to nearly triple in size by the end of 2021 to 6,400 members, Raymond said last week. That includes recruiting 300 enlisted service members.
The service will open applications next year for Army and Navy space operator interservice transfers, which should begin in fiscal 2022. But unlike the Air Force, those services will likely limit how many space professionals can transfer to roughly 100 each.
Creating an Identity
It has issued guidance on how to wear the camouflage uniform. (Like the Army and Air Force, Space Force members wear the Operational Camouflage Pattern as the official service duty uniform.) And it has released three commercials to attract new recruits.
Vice President Mike Pence announced during the White House ceremony Friday that space professionals would be called Guardians.
Earlier this month, Pence also announced the Space Force's first two bases: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and nearby Patrick Air Force Base in Florida were redesignated as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Patrick Space Force Base.
But the Space Force still lacks an official dress uniform, physical fitness uniform and mess dress uniform; an official song; patch and insignia wear -- not to mention a rank structure.
Most of those decisions are being worked on, said the service's top enlisted adviser, Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman.
"It's about listening to everyone," he said in an interview. "We feel we can craft a service narrative that both honors military traditions and speaks to the things that we want them to speak to the essence of our service, the future of our service.
"We'll come up with something everybody can be proud of," he said of the service's upcoming rank structure.
Then, there are the uniforms. Members are trying out -- and designers are tweaking -- a few dress uniform prototypes -- before they head into an official test phase. Towberman said that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected uniform production and testing as manufacturing has been scaled back for social distancing protocols.
"There are a couple of decisions out there that 'good enough' isn't really good enough," Thompson added. "That's the one we really want to get right, because the first time people wear it, the first time they see it, it's going to leave a first impression."
Towberman said the service has been collecting input on chevron designs. "We want to kind of throw those out for focus groups and some public comments and things like that as well," he said of the proposed rank insignia patches.
One of the Air Force bands has put together a small team of lyricists and musicians who are crafting what will someday be the official Space Force song.
"They actually came up with a series of themes and words and concepts and ideas that built that into a set of phrases [that will coincide with] music associated with these themes," Thompson said.
The service has received unsolicited submissions from musicians across the country, but "we're in the process of developing what I'll call, 'the candidate,'" he said.
Starting with a clean slate has given the Space Force the opportunity to keep diversity at the forefront, Towberman said. For example, all uniform designs under consideration keep women in mind -- from comfort, to fit and functionality.
"Now, we are in control of our destiny, if you will [of building the enlisted cadre]," he said, which further distinguishes the Space Force and its warfighting roles from those of its Air Force parent service.
As it creates new policies, such as talent management, career progression and flexibility, and family and caregiver leave, it will look to the other services for pointers on what's worked well for troops, Towberman said.
But Pentagon officials have warned that space threats have been increasing over the last decade. Both Russia and China have been focused on technological advancements, and U.S. intelligence agencies have observed Russia testing non-kinetic, anti-satellite weapons. Earlier this year, two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, tailed an American satellite, known as USA 245 or KH-11. Time Magazine reported the Russian satellites loitered within 100 miles of KH-11, activity that Raymond called "unusual and disturbing."
Thompson said the Space Force always has the watch.
"Nobody else on the planet" can track 26,000 roaming space objects 24 hours a day, he said.
"We track them all. We not only determine where they are, but we also project where they're going and whether or not they're going to create a collision hazard... or are threatening to our satellites or ally satellites," Thompson explained. That includes warning astronauts in orbit of incoming debris.
"If any object poses a threat to any human in orbit, we have the mission to provide warnings. We've absolutely contacted the Russians, we've contacted the Chinese, we contact commercial companies," he said.
Officials have said the Space Force is expanding its mission beyond protecting Earth-bound warfighters by watching over assets such as GPS satellites, including defending human space flights -- with members potentially headed into space themselves someday.
"Space is a no-fail mission," Towberman said. "And it has been for quite some time. And that's why we're here. Our crews have been incredible, our leaders have been very forward thinking and we've stayed in front of things."
Thompson added, "I think the most important thing that we have done is demonstrated that with speed and agility and moving quickly, that we could build an effective model."
The Space Force is building "a culture that you feel confident will adapt and no matter what gets thrown at it," Towberman said. "That's the goal."
-- Gina Harkins contributed to this report.