Being ready in a crisis

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Mia Walsh
  • 18th SPCS

Early on the morning of 9/11, I woke with a start.  It was not because I instinctively knew something bad was going to happen – it was because my crew partner was screaming my name and asking me to get out of bed.  As a First Lieutenant missileer stationed at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, I was responsible for launch operations of the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile – the most powerful weapon in our nation’s nuclear deterrent arsenal.


I had gone on what I thought would be a routine alert the previous day, with a crewmember I had never gone on alert with and who was not even in my squadron.  I generally worked the night shift and so had been asleep for about an hour when my crew partner woke me up after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  As we watched CNN in confusion, we saw the South Tower hit by the second plane about 15 minutes later.  Alarms began to go off in the capsule and Emergency Action Messages appeared in our queue.  We both looked at each other, opened our decode documents, and started processing messages. 


In a crisis, especially in a military crisis, training kicks in immediately.  We were fully prepared that day to do whatever was needed.  Neither one of us had time to fully process what was happening in the rest of the country – we just knew what we had to do in that time period and our constant, recurring training for every situation we could encounter in that missile capsule ensured we had the skills to do so.  As two crewmembers who never worked together before and who formally met for the first time the morning of our alert, we easily slid into our roles of commander and deputy because missile training is so standardized, so highly regimented, that anyone could go on alert with any other trained member and succeed.


We both remained steady and focused that day.  The military teaches personnel to be flexible and to stay calm in any situation.  We had no idea what was happening that morning and even when intelligence reports starting trickling in, there was still a lot of confusion.  In one of my favorite movies, The American President, one of the President’s staffers says, “I think the important thing is not to make it look like we’re panicking.” And the President replies, “See, and I think the important thing is actually not to be panicking.”  Panicking adds nothing to the situation and will alter your ability to make good decisions.  My crew partner and I completed each task as needed, processed each message as it came in, and did the best job we could do under the circumstances.  Relief crews came out later that day and we traded off in 12 hour shifts for the next four days.  It was only when I returned home that I could fully process and understand the magnitude of everything that had happened.


No one can be ready for every situation that might occur – neither my crew partner nor I nor anyone else in the missile field that day thought that something like this could happen.  However, we can be ready to face any crisis through proper planning for different circumstances, repetitive training to meet any possible event, and a calm and level-headed demeanor. 


Seventeen years later, as the commander of the 18th Space Control Squadron, I am proud of the way the squadron meets challenges every day.  Utilizing the Space Surveillance Network, a collection of global ground and space-based radars and optical sensors, we provide spaceflight safety to NASA for all manned space flight, including the ISS, as well as to the Department of Defense, launch agencies, satellite operators, and interagency and Allied partners.  We are responsible for launch collision avoidance, launch support, on-orbit conjunction assessment and collision avoidance, end-of-life disposal, de-orbit support, and re-entry assessment.  Crewmembers utilize extensive training in space situational awareness along with detailed planning with the Joint Space Operations Center to be ready for any crisis, from conjunctions between two satellites to processing multiple launches, sometimes three a day, in order to maintain the accuracy of the space catalog.  Their skills ensure the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of the space environment.