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Supporting US Space Force satellites is all in a day’s work for TCS Oakhanger team

For many, the name ‘Space Force’ conjures up images of top-secret, science-fiction operations in space. But for the Serco Defence team based at the Telemetry and Command Station (TCS) contract at Oakhanger, working with the US Space Force is part of their day job.

On the 1st April 2020, our TCS team was awarded a £25 million+ standalone contract to continue providing operations and maintenance support to the US Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) until 2024. Serco has been providing site services at Oakhanger since 2003 as part of the UK Skynet 4/5 programmes. Since then we have significantly improved customer satisfaction, reliability and safety. As part of our wider Space capability, approximately 75 highly skilled Serco engineers and technicians are employed on the contract to support the US Space Force.

With a proud history of service, about half the Serco team have worked on site at Oakhanger for 15 or more years, with several who have served for more than 30 years. Serco’s history at Oakhanger dates back to 1978 when the RCA took over operations from the Royal Air Force, and in 1987 RCA became Serco.

43 years later, Comms and IT Manager Tony Nowak is still a vital member of Serco’s TCS team. “I’m probably the only one of the original team still at Oakhanger all these years later,” Tony said. “I’ve been here since the beginning, when the only bit of US Air Force equipment was a telephone on a desk. I’ve seen TCS expand significantly. When I joined, there was one building with a small ops room, gatehouse and carpark. Now we support an American mission known as Space Force with four antennas and three control rooms.”

“Telemetry means to ‘measure from afar’,” Tony said. “TCS Oakhanger is part of a network of ground stations around the world, and we act as a relay collecting data from US military satellites passing over the UK. Each satellite sends data down to the ground, we collect this data and relay it to our customer in the US. They have programmes which analyse the data, make decisions and send commands for us transmit to the satellites. The whole process takes about 1-2 seconds.”

“The original antenna was an old 60-foot wheel and track system which was ok for monitoring geo-stationary satellites, but it couldn’t really react fast enough to capture the low earth orbit ones. If a satellite in low earth orbit goes right over the top of you, the antenna must turn 180 degrees in under 2 seconds. Eventually that antenna got demolished and a new one was installed in 2001. It is now being upgraded again with more modern ground station equipment (receivers and transmitters).”

“The basics of Telemetry and satellite orbits are quite easy to understand, but the technical detail becomes very complicated maths very quickly!” Tony said. “I’ve always been interested in electronics, which has led me to my current role looking after the communications and IT systems on site, making sure they comply with all the latest policies. We now have six buildings on site, which all have complex IT requirements that need maintaining.”

One of the people who has also witnessed the big change in technology on site over the past three decades is Doug Cameron. After starting as a shift operator in 1991, Doug moved in the Comms and IT team to work with Tony nine years ago. “Now I look after the mission systems and computer equipment,” Doug said. “One of biggest changes has been how much computers are involved in the day to day running of the site. Everything used to be manually configured but now they’re all configured automatically.”

“I didn’t think I’d be here quite this long because I was looking for a job more in line with my electronics background. But Oakhanger is a good place to work, and it’s the people who make it. I’ve seen some major projects happen here in 30 years. We used to provide comms backup for the Space Shuttle, tracking it manually with the old UHF antenna and you could often hear the astronauts talking, including British astronaut Michael Foale, so I quite enjoyed being part of that. When we now track satellites we don’t process the payload, but with the Shuttle you could actually hear them talking about the launch and getting into orbit.”

Self-proclaimed ‘newbie’ of the team, Mike Whiting arrived on site in 1984 as a Technician. “After a while the job gets under your skin,” Mike said. “It’s a nice place to work out in the countryside. One of the things we laugh about is that this site just keeps going and the outside world doesn’t really impact it, not even in a global pandemic. One of our team still has to be on site every day so we rotate and do two days each, and then the rest work from home, but otherwise it’s more or less business as usual.”

“Lots of things have changed over the years,” Mike said. “I don’t miss having to clean the old 60-foot wheel and track antenna every week. To help the wheels move easily on the track the antenna had to be regularly oiled. As one of the technician crew I had to go out once a week, regardless of the weather, wipe off the layer of old oil and repaint it with a fresh coat. I happily finished doing that job 20 years ago! The new antennas don’t have tracks that need oiling anymore.”

All in all, Tony, Doug and Mike represent a significant proportion (109 years) of the TCS Oakhanger workforce, who together have given an impressive 1,094 years of service to our customer over the past 43 years.

TCS Contract Manager Terry Clark said: “TCS has been home to UK and US satellite communications for many years. As well as the thousands of supports every year, in October 2020 we engaged with our 200th launch since the start of the millennium. We are immensely proud of Serco’s history and of the great work our team continue to deliver every day.”