Author, as told to
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears’ anonymous interview series, we talked to a ground systems engineer who fields missile warnings for Lockheed Martin.
I’m a Ground Systems Engineer with Lockheed Martin. Currently, I oversee the consolidation of three separate round-the-clock operations floors for military satellites into a single ops floor. In simple terms, what we’re doing is merging three constellations of satellites run by three sets of software into a single program. I supervise the Ground System team, or the people who monitor the antennas, equipment, communications, etc., and who are responsible for fixing any software bugs or equipment malfunctions at a moment’s notice. I’ve been doing that for over a year now. Before I got promoted to this position, I worked on the Ground System team for two years as a shift worker, providing monitoring and support. We should accomplish the full transition within a year or so.
The consolidation itself is basically a software upgrade. The programs are all old. The new software will be able to fly all three types of satellites. There’s no need to have three separate operations floors with their own crews do this because now we can manage it all from a single place.
In this particular job, it’s helpful to have a bachelor’s degree in some form of engineering. We have people on the team who went through military service and actually didn’t get college degrees. We hired them based on their work experience instead. I myself have a Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering and a Master’s in Astronautical Engineering. I don’t come from a military background. I did Air Force Junior ROTC in high school, but that’s about as far as it went. I was looking to work for Lockheed Martin since I was in college because it’s such a big aerospace corporation. But this particular job, I sort of stumbled into.
When I was initially hired, it was for a program that required a higher level of clearance. The government was very slow in processing the request. Basically, for the first year of my employment, I sat in a room with the other new hires and did random side projects, like helping the finance team with spreadsheets. It was pretty boring. Then, I got picked up for another classified program doing some simple document editing and publishing through review boards—stuff that wasn’t related to my degree at all.
Eventually, I decided to join this leadership development program sponsored by the company. The gist of it was cycling through a different position within the organization every six months to get a sense of what you’d like to do on a more or less permanent basis. I got a lot of exposure and experience doing that. That’s how I ended up doing the job I do now.
The strange thing is that this job isn’t exactly aerospace engineering. Everything I learned in school I’m not using in my career. That happens often because industry doesn’t always agree with academia. This is the closest I’ve come to doing professionally what I studied academically because I’m working with actual spacecraft.
Lockheed Martin in numbers
— Founded: 1995
— Number of employees: 112,000
— Revenue: $45.6 billion (FY 2014)
— Operating income: $5.592 billion (FY 2014)
— Total assets: $37.037 billion (FY 2014)
— Total equity: $3.4 billion (FY 2014)
— Domestic government conracts: $38.4 billion or 85% (in 2009)
— Foreign government contracts: $5.8 billion or 13% (in 2009)
— Commercial and other contracts: $900 million or 2% (in 2009)
— Political lobbying expenditure: $9.9 million (in 2010)
— Current stock price: ≈ $187.70
THE TEAM I OVERSEE works for the program that covers missile warnings. There are a bunch of satellites that scan the globe looking for signatures of missile launches and other types of missile-related activity. It’s very closely connected with the US military. The Ground Systems Engineer’s role is to sit on shifts with the crew. The job is a combination of tech support, first-line response and liaison between multiple people and teams. Pretty much anything that’s on the ground, anything that’s not on the satellite vehicle itself, any antennas, any software, any communications, anything on any remote sites that were scanning these vehicles halfway around the world, we are tasked with monitoring. We have to fix it immediately if anything breaks or, if we can’t fix it, we have to call in the appropriate people who can.
We’re also very software savvy ourselves. We can fix a lot of software issues on the fly by just running command scripts. We’re basically troubleshooting machinery that scans for missile threats around the world. Typically, these come from countries hostile to the US and its allies.
For overseas sites, we have maintainers on call 24/7. If they’re not in during business hours, we have to ask the military to contact them at home and bring them in. There are different branches of the military that control different parts of the Ground System. They have their own teams that are responsible for fixing various pieces of equipment that we don’t control.
This is very integral to the nation’s first line of defense regarding missile warnings. It’s how we track threats to the US and coordinate with whomever we’ve got deployed in various parts of the world. We see something is going down in a certain part of the world. Then, we alert our people there that, hey, this is going to happen. Finally, they take the necessary action. I can’t discuss where exactly those hotbeds of missile activity are, but we probably have ground teams deployed in those parts of the world. That would be the military aspect of this operation, which I’m not really privy to. I’m strictly on satellites.
Everything I say here is pretty much all I can tell my family and friends. I can’t give them too many more specific details other than that. I’ve worked in more classified programs before where I couldn’t even reveal what I did. This one’s actually a little bit more open. You can find articles about it on the internet. Yes, I have to keep some things secret, but they handle it well. They don’t ask questions. They’re used to it. Even in the event of an immediate threat to America, I could probably only disclose what the military says I can and can’t say.
Not dozens but
more than a few
I ORIGINALLY WORKED IN BOULDER, COLORADO. That was where we flew a certain subset of the overall satellite constellation. Then, there’s a second site down in Colorado Springs that flies another subset. Finally, there’s a third site at the Buckley Air Force Base, out by the airport, that flies the third set. The satelittes themselves are out in space orbiting the globe. Buckley Air Force Base is noted as the main headquarters of missile warning and space defense for the United States Air Force. That’s why we’re based in Colorado.
The program is humongous. Specifically, for Ground System Engineers, there are three teams for the three sites. Each team has about twelve shift workers and about three to four day staffers per site. Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor to the Air Force for this particular program. Then, there’s Northrop Grumman, which is the subcontractor to Lockheed. I’d say it’s about a 50-50 distribution of Lockheed and Northrop employees.
I can’t go into specifics regarding the number of satellites we’re responsible for, but I’ll say not dozens but more than a few. The satellites transmit data through our software. We have military operators sitting on the software processing the data and sending out to various branches of the military that have a use for it. The contractors, the Lockheed and Northrop guys, are basically there working the shift alongside the operators. They’re essentially in a support role. They’re working with the software behind the scenes, beneath the basic GUIs and everything else that the operators are using. The operators, meanwhile, are military personnel.
Northrop is an independent company that works closely with Lockheed. They both have bid on this contract. The Air Force is the customer, while Lockheed and Northrop basically lease the product for the Air Force to use. They share the responsibilities on how they’re developing it about 50-50.
Active and total
warheads by country*
* These figures are estimates
THE HOURS FOR SHIFT WORK were both good and bad, actually. There were pros and cons. I worked on what’s called a “Panama schedule.” That’s where you work two or three days at a time and then have two or three days off. For example, on a given two-week schedule, I would work twelve hours on Monday and Tuesday, 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, and have Wednesday and Thursday off. Then, I’d work Friday, Saturday, Sunday and have Monday, Tuesday off. Then, I’d work Wednesday and Thursday and have Friday, Saturday, Sunday off. I’d work seven days in that two weeks and have multiple weekdays off during the week. Every other weekend was a three-day weekend.
Now, as a manager, that’s obviously changed. I work Monday to Friday, sometimes Monday to Thursday, eight hours a day. I can come in late and stay late if I want. My hours are variable. On Mondays and Tuesdays, for example, I come in at 12:00 and stay until 8:00. I work out of Buckley Air Force Base now. I used to work in Boulder. With this consolidation effort, I was one of the people chosen to go down to Buckley and help set up this new thing for the new people that come in.
My experience is a little different than your typical office worker’s. I drive to work, show my ID to the guard, pull into the parking lot, and walk through a portal and past a whole bunch of antennas into the building. I mostly spend my day on the operations floor, which is a classified environment. I don’t have an office or a cubicle. I don’t have email access. I can’t bring my cellphone in. There’s a public phone that everybody can use to make calls, an unclassified one. That’s the phone number that I list. I’m not always in there because I’m usually walking around. I’m either training people on a new system, or I’m sitting in meetings or I’m running around trying to fix various hardware malfunctions.
Issues arise pretty often, though I don’t want to put a number to it. There are so many pieces of equipment with so many makes and models. Some of them are new and state-of-the-art. Some of them are practically ancient, so the companies that make them don’t support them anymore. We basically bought all the spares and replace them as we go.
As a shift worker, you’re not supposed to leave the floor unless you have someone covering you. I would pretty much eat my lunch on the floor. That’s carried over into my day-staff work as well. There’s no cafeteria on the base. If you want to go get lunch, you’d have to walk outside the building all the way back to the parking lot, drive all the way off the base, get something and come back, which typically takes a half-an-hour to 45 minutes. You can do that if you want. I usually just pack my lunch and eat it while I’m working on stuff. It’s a fairly low-key environment. They usually have something on the giant TV screens that are mounted on the walls. You can hang around and talk to people or you can watch TV or you can keep working while you’re eating lunch.
The stuff on night shift was the most entertaining because of all of the local commercials and solicitations for sex websites and sex shops. Lots of weird shows. During the day, it’s mostly news.
The operations floor is a big open space, like the inside of a warehouse. On the walls, there are some large, connected TVs that form a massive screen. You could throw up images of whatever is on your computer so people can see the globe, with national boundaries and missiles sites and all of that. There are lots of screens.
We’re looking at a lot of things. The general tagline to say is “missile warning.” If we see something that happens in the world and it’s not directly related to our national interests, then we alert the military or the government of the nation or nations that might be interested. There’s a lot of diplomatic back-and-forth. It’s a large international partnership. It’s not just the US. We call foreign nationals on the phone all the time to come in and fix things. We have foreign nationals as part of our crew. We have Canadian and British officers onboard, and they have Americans.
The operators are basically just kids straight out of basic training who went to space warning class. They’re in their early twenties, if that. The contractors, the people who I work for, are typically ex-military or retired military. They’re usually in their thirties or forties. Most of them have college degrees. They’re a decent bunch.
Total number of operating satellites orbiting the earth
— United States: 528
— China: 142
— Russia: 131
— Other: 474
— Total: 1,265
The breakdown for United States satellites
— Commercial: 229
— Military: 160
— Government: 121
— Civil: 18
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists
What interested me in aerospace in the first place was science fiction, more or less. I knew I had the smarts to become an engineer. There are many different disciplines within engineering: there’s chemical, electrical, biological and so on. The part involving space was the one that interested me the most, mainly due to my pre-existing interest in science fiction. I’m a huge sci-fi fan.
My career is completely separate from my political and ideological beliefs because they don’t necessarily align. Since I work in the military-industrial complex, the people I mostly come in contact with are generally religious and conservative. They’re mainly right wing. The military is really into that. I’m sure the people I work with have differing ideas about these things. It’s just not really a thing that’s a part of our daily lives.
Working for Lockheed is interesting because it’s a company that’s been pretty controversial. It’s been in the news on a regular basis since the Bush administration. I will say that Lockheed is a very large company. They do a lot of different things. Some things are a lot more problematic than others. I’m not associated with most of what Lockheed’s doing. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a decent company to work for. I get a good salary. I get good medical benefits. I get good time off. My hours are negotiable. If I want to take a three-day weekend, I can just work four ten-hour days and take Friday off, no questions asked.
After you’ve become a team supervisor, in this particular program anyway, you generally move up into a chief engineer role where you manage the whole support operation, which encompasses a number of teams. You can work your way up to becoming a site manager, where you oversee the contracts portion of the entire site, like all of Boulder, for example.
There’s ways to climb the ladder. Personally, for me, since I’m a space guy, once they set up missions going to Mars, I would assume they’d have to have some sort of ground station monitoring for the planet. I’d like to be a part of that. I don’t know how or when that’s going to become a reality. But a lot could happen in 20 years.