When he was 7 years old, one of Michael Parodi’s greatest joys was to peer deep into the night sky with his father. On countless sweltering Houston nights, Parodi and his dad aimed their telescope over treetops and between clouds to see the stars and planets.
Then one night something looked different.
“We saw a satellite passing by,” he recalled. “I always wondered how they got that up there and how they kept it up there.”
Parodi, now 20, is a Specialist 1 among the first Guardians training to operate Space Force satellites.
“It’s not every job that you … wake up every morning and … learn how to operate a satellite,” he said. “How to block and create signals, and do the math to calculate how much power you would need to do that—and all that good stuff.”“It’s a very unique experience,” Parodi said of learning about orbital mechanics and the awe he feels as part of such an exclusive group. “I personally feel—it’s a little goofy to say—but, I feel the smartest I’ve ever been, is right now.”
Developing a Space Force culture for members steeped in other services’ histories and giving them a sense of belonging is among the challenges STARCOM must still work through.
Training and educating Guardians is the mission of the Space Force at Space Training and Readiness Command, or STARCOM, which stood up on Aug. 23. STARCOM is one of the Space Force’s three Field Commands, the equivalent of a Major Command in the Air Force. Its mission comprises training, doctrine development, and wargaming—to give Guardians the skills and knowledge they need to employ and defend America’s space assets. Space operators must know how to operate Space Force assets and how to deter and, if necessary, repel threats from adversaries if they threaten those assets.
The Starcom Stand Up
Brig. Gen. Shawn N. Bratton is the first commander of STARCOM, created after months of evaluation and planning by Air Force, Space Force, and National Guard experts.
“I’m a graduate of Air Force Basic Training 34 years ago,” Bratton told Air Force Magazine. “The focus when I went through was on the air domain. I learned the history of the Air Force. I learned about different aircraft. I learned about adversary capabilities in the air domain.”
Now he’s in charge of laying the foundation for a new service entirely. “Guardians need those same things, but they need it for the space domain,” he explained. “They need to understand the space environment. They need to understand the Space Force’s capabilities and our partner nations and other government partners and the capabilities that they bring. We need to understand what the adversary can do in the space domain and what those threats present to us. So you can see the parallels.”
The Space Force must focus on space. When STARCOM stood up in August, it took responsibility for Guardians’ education. For now, Guardians will continue to go through Air Force Basic Military Training (BMT) under Air Education and Training Command. But eventually, STARCOM planners envision developing their own basic training, officer training, and Professional Military Education curricula.
“To develop the culture for Guardians, and to have them focus on the things that the Space Force needs, that eventually leads to an independent training activity,” Bratton said.
New Guardians will complete basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, then head to Undergraduate Space Training at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. Once complete, they take follow-on courses for their space warfighting discipline: orbital warfare, space electronic warfare, or space battle management. Those courses are taught at Peterson Space Force Base, Colo., then more advanced coursework are taught at other locations.
Space Force Guardians complete all seven Air Force Basic Military Training graduation requirements, just like Air Force trainees, said 37th Training Wing spokesperson Annette Crawford. In addition, they must complete 13 hours of special Space Force coursework covering the National Defense Strategy, Space Force doctrine and organization, and space history. The curriculum is taught by Space Force military training instructors. Additional classes are taught by Guardians based around the world, teaching from their worksites.
“These capstone, virtual events include an unclassified space threat brief and a workforce relations panel where USSF trainees hear and conduct discussion with officer, [senior noncommissioned officers], civilian, and contractor teammates,” Crawford said.
New Guardians are issued iPad Pro tablets during BMT and carry them from location to location.
Vandenberg then hosts classes for Guardians following officer training school or basic training. Both officers and enlisted space operators now attend similar but separate classes at the Vandenberg schoolhouse, which also folded into STARCOM.
The National Security Space Institute at Peterson then hosts Space 200 and Space 300 classes for both officers and enlisted trainees.
After coursework at Peterson, Guardians may attend advanced courses at Air Force training centers. Other Guardians may report directly to their duty location for on-the-job training on their specific systems.
Some specialized training will remain in Air Force schoolhouses. Intelligence professionals, for example, will continue their training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. “There’s world-class training there that it may make more sense just to continue to leverage that training,” said Bratton. “There is a responsibility here as well to leverage things that already exist, not just create new things for the sake of creating new things.”
An Exclusive Group
Parodi was taking a coding class in his first semester at San Antonio College in Texas when he first considered joining the Space Force. He enjoyed mathematics and physics and took a natural liking to writing code and studying the electromagnetic spectrum. Paying for tuition, however, was stressful.
He thought of his father and reached out to an Air Force recruiter.
“I thought, the best way to make him proud would be to serve my country,” Parodi said. “And I thought, a good way of doing that would be for what I thought would be the most innovative of the branches. When you think space, you think [of] the future.”
Parodi beat the odds. He had no idea that more than 5,000 civilians had applied for just 40 openings when the first Space Force civilian jobs were posted in 2020, or that just 50 service members from across the services were initially selected for transfer into the Space Force from among 3,700 applicants.
Parodi made his interest in Space Force very clear. “I placed all of my job options as Space Force,” he recalled. An Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, average score of 96 helped.
“I didn’t realize how exclusive it was, but I’m very glad that I was selected,” Parodi said. “I think I lucked out big time.”
Parodi and his flight of about 30 Guardians went through BMT under a microscope as the first all-Guardian training flight.
“There was an expectation by the other flights that we would be … exceptional, at everything we were doing,” he said. “So, there was this atmosphere of everybody kind of looking up to us—or wanting to beat us. It really created a competitive environment.”
His fellow Guardians competed well, pushing for higher physical fitness scores, academics, even cleaner dorm rooms. Parodi estimates his classmates tripled their PT scores by the end of basic and finished in the top three for academics. Were his fellow Space Force trainees stereotypical bespectacled nerdy science kids?
“I wouldn’t say that that’s an incorrect picture,” he said. “We are, I would say, a very nerdy community—a lot of Monster [energy drinks], a lot of video games, … but very intelligent.”
The Guardian Training Pipeline
Space Force Guardian trainees will spend about six months between basic training and advanced classes in their career choice: space, cyber, or intel operations, and the sub-discipline where they specialize. Officers can also go into engineering and acquisitions programs.
Guardians may have the opportunity to pass more quickly, however, if the Air Force model of competency-based education and training is adopted for the Space Force. In that scenario, Guardians could soon test out of classes.
“I think the way to do that is to make your training very modular so it’s easy for folks to either go through more quickly or to skip over earlier modules,” Bratton explained. “We’re absolutely trying to build that into our training pipeline.”
STARCOM classrooms already encompass the full spectrum of learning styles. Traditional lectures with a professor at a podium and students taking notes are complemented by hands-on and simulation training.
Bratton described some of the inventive ways the Space Force is leveraging technology.
At Vandenberg, students work through problems with hardware as if communicating directly with a satellite. An officer cadre in another classroom used virtual reality headsets to understand how an adversary threat might present itself.
At the Goodfellow intelligence school, Bratton saw a scenario where intelligence students joined with cyber students from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and space students at Vandenberg, all contributing to problem-solving in a distributed manner.
STARCOM envisions advanced training exercises with large force employment, similar to Nellis Air Force Base’s Red Flag, where allied and partner nations practice flying and fighting together as a single team.
Space Force recently hosted “Space Flag,” drawing together space operators, intel professionals, and cyber operators for a week of training. The Schriever Wargames, which explores the military’s use of new space systems, is another a higher-level activity that will fall under STARCOM. “This is where we bring in our international partners,” Bratton said. “Both training and education happens there, as well as just relationship building with international partners, and there we work through more difficult problems, policy issues, classification issues.”
Some advanced education will remain in the hands of the Air Force, such as the weapons school at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Space Force will continue to educate intel and cyber professionals at Nellis, where STARCOM will manage the 328th Weapons Squadron.
Converting New Guardians
Developing a Space Force culture in Guardians as they enter the military is one thing, but the Space Force now faces a different challenge: helping Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines transfer into the Space Force. Developing a Space Force culture for members steeped in other services’ histories and giving them a sense of belonging is among the challenges STARCOM must still work through.
The first 50 Guardians to transfer into the Space Force from anyplace other than the Air Force were identified in June. Another 350 will be named by the end of the year. Bratton says the service will take a case-by-case approach in determining what training will be necessary for each of those new Guardians. They don’t need to start over from scratch, he said.
“What we do need to give them is the space-specific kind of acculturation training.”
The Space Force is building a special course for the inter-service transfers. Follow-on training will be tailored specific to their background and needs.
Space Training and Readiness Command is not a direct corollary to the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command. Indeed, training and education is less than half the command’s portfolio. STARCOM will be the Space Force’s primary test and range command and will assess new hardware before it is turned over for operational use.
The STARCOM operational test authority evaluates the system capabilities after launch, similar to operation tests at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for the Air Force.
“So the acquirers go and get them, and work with industry to get us the best stuff, STARCOM will wring that out and make sure that it’s ready to go for operations before Space Operations Command takes it over,” explained Bratton. “At some point you’re going to launch it into space, and we want to make sure it works before we turn it over to the operators.”
Such tests are currently conducted at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Nellis. The Space Force is envisioning creating its own range and testing infrastructure, with investment comparable to Edwards and the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
The difference is that while satellites cannot be tested on conventional ranges, ground stations can be; for space-based systems, STARCOM intends to leverage digital engineering and modeling to simulate testing.
Thinking back on that night years ago, when he stared through the telescope with his father at a tiny satellite trace across the sky, Parodi contemplated his current studies in orbital mechanics. Back then, all he could do was wonder how it got there, how it was controlled. Now he’s learning how to do that himself.
“Learning how they do that, it’s very gratifying to have had a [question] from way back when I was 7 years old answered in my adult years,” Parodi said. “I actually understand the science behind it. It’s highly motivating.”
A Permanent Home for STARCOM
When Space Training and Readiness Command officially stands up, it will comprise all of the former Air Force units related to space training and tactics and range activities. Where STARCOM will put down its roots as a command is still an open question, and local communities are already lining up to make their pitches for why STARCOM should locate near them.
“We absolutely will need to partner with industry and academia,” said Brig. Gen. Shawn N. Bratton, STARCOM’s first commander. “There’s so much activity right now in private industry, in the civil sector, and with our international partners.”
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), whose district is directly north of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., told Air Force Magazine his community is “very interested in the pending STARCOM.” Space, he said, “is in our DNA since the 1960s, when Cape Canaveral was built from scratch.”
The retired Army Green Beret described the area as the “space triangle,” with points in Cape Canaveral, Orlando, and Daytona Beach, where Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University boasts a strong space program.
“The future of space to me is public-private partnerships,” Waltz said. “The … small sat companies, obviously, SpaceX, Blue Origin, OneWeb, you name it, are all there in Florida.”
Space Florida’s Mark Bontrager, a former commander of the 45th Support Group at Patrick Air Force Base [now Space Force Base] who was involved in the state’s bid for Space Command, says all the same strengths apply to STARCOM. A key advantage he points to is the Department of Defense’s own recent investments in the National Center for Simulation in Orlando, where simulation, modeling, and training is developed for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Air Force.
“It’s just a hell of a lot cheaper to train people” using simulation, Bontrager said. “That extra piece needs to be brought to bear to support the warfighter … to be able to win a war in the space domain. Because our adversaries aren’t sitting on their laurels.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) countered that his district, in Colorado Springs, Colo, should host STARCOM.
“I’m totally convinced that STARCOM should be in Colorado Springs,” he said. “The National Security Space Institute (NSSI) is there in Colorado Springs, already at Peterson Air Force Base.”
Lamborn emphasized that NSSI is currently providing more advanced training for space warriors, while Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which is also vying for STARCOM, provides basic level training.
In addition to much of STARCOM’s mission already taking place in Colorado Springs, Lamborn said seven of the Space Force’s nine deltas are in Colorado Springs, with an eighth up the road at Buckley Space Force Base outside Denver.
“If complex problems arise or topics need to be analyzed or dealt with in detail, the people who are going to most likely have the answer are going to be already in the Colorado Springs area,” he said, noting the proximity of instructors for special classes. “All the things that STARCOM is going to be involved in is going to be readily available.”
Bratton declined to discuss his view on the specific qualifications for selecting STARCOM’s permanent location, but he said excitement is helping to drive interest.
“I’m very excited about this idea, the responsibility to prepare all Guardians to succeed, to succeed in their careers, to be successful in supporting their families, but most importantly, to be successful in the mission to conduct space operations,” he said. “It’s an incredible challenge, but an incredible opportunity to take these great things that the Air Force has done, these great ideas that these Army and Navy members are going to bring into the Space Force and just turn that into something that’s even better than it is today.”