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Ceremony commemorates end of space support at Onizuka AFS

  • Published
  • By Maj. Matthew Olson
  • 21st Space Operations Squadron

On Sept. 15, a relatively quiet yet historic event in which Col. Michael Finn, the 50th Space Wing Network Operations Group commander, presided over took place in Sunnyvale at 10:30 a.m. While the Travis Air Force Base Honor Guard slowly guided the final descent of Onizuka's Air Force Station flag, the sound of retreat somberly played in the air for those who witnessed an event to commemorate an end to nearly 52 years of stellar space support.

Constructed in 1959, Sunnyvale Air Force Station (AFS) was later renamed to Onizuka Air Force Station in 1986 to honor the late Colonel Ellison S. Onizuka, an astronaut who was tragically lost during the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. He left a legacy of working at the base and spurred a challenge to carry on his spirit of pursuing space excellence.

Over its impressive four decades of service, the heartbeat of Onizuka AFS, better known as the "Blue Cube," secured its place as a national, space icon directly supporting a vast array of missions. The facility provided unfaltering satellite and space communications support despite numerous technical advancements over the years, earthquakes and other catastrophic events, and workers assured critical access to telemetry and mission data information through its robust communications architecture and the global network of remote tracking stations.

Those interested in space history never overlook the base's pioneering role on Aug. 18, 1960, when an Air Force C-119 recovered a Corona space capsule in mid-air. This was the first time an object from space was successfully retrieved by an aircraft. Contained within that capsule were the first ever photos taken from a satellite, a mapping of Earth and photos of areas deep within enemy countries.

By July 2010, the various space missions had completed their transfers to other locations, and 21 SOPS had relocated from Onizuka AFS to Vandenberg. The Sept. 15 event marked the completion of six-years of shutdown activities, in compliance with the 2005, BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) mandate.

"We are here today with a sense of sadness and nostalgia, but also with a sense of tremendous pride," said Finn. "The contributions the men and women of this installation have made to our nation's space programs and our national security have made an indelible mark on our national history. The era of Sunnyvale and Onizuka Air Station will always be looked upon as a time of great achievement and innovation, and while the individual names of those that have served may not be remembered, the legacy of this great place will remain evident in our space operations for many generations."

Transition activities, beyond the massive efforts of mission transfers involved a tremendous team working closely with the Air Force Real Property Agency, the City of Sunnyvale, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Air National Guard, the Veterans Affairs, NASA and many others to repurpose more than $11 million worth of usable equipment, communications, furniture, tools and goods from the 29 facilities and 614,000 square feet of formerly occupied work areas. Even the carpet tiles were reused from the Blue Cube's once always hectic hallways.

"It has been quite an organizational nightmare in preparing for the base closure, but they (21 SOPS Detachment 4 personnel) have truly done an outstanding job," said Rose Beamer-Jansson, former Onizuka Det. 4 chief.

The commander, 21st Space Operations Squadron, Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg further stated during the ceremony:

"So while it will be sad to close this chapter on our nation's space efforts, we can all take great pride in knowing that the thousands of workers, from civil engineers to satellite operators, from communications specialists to security forces, grounds-keepers to administrators each played a key role in the success of numerous diverse space programs," said Wulfestieg. "And the legacy of excellence, dedication and service before self has been the hallmark of this base from day one to day 18,937."

Although the closing ceremony marks the end of Onizuka AFS's involvement in space missions, the need to continue assuring access to the nation's space assets, and sustaining America's freedom through a contested space domain remains the on-going mission of the men and women of 21 SOPS.