HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – A PEO Digital team at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, is investing 15 months and $2.4 million to save time and energy by paring down and updating computer parts responsible for tracking space-borne objects.
Prior to their effort, Space Defense Operations Center computers resembling a scene from a 1980s Cold War Hollywood fantasy would whirr to life in a basement. Reel-to-reel tapes spun and various decidedly mechanical sounds would click and clang from a bank of machines charged with tracking every object orbiting earth. A silicon graphics driver the size of a mini-fridge would heat up as it generated images combatant commanders needed to identify friendly and adversary space objects. Fans then spun up to cool it back down.
Everything worked, but Airmen, program managers, engineers, logisticians and the Raytheon Corp. contractors saw this process as a potential liability and began working to carefully replace the creaking equipment in 2017.
“Operators just see SPADOC’s projections on screens, and we need to keep that process functional and performing exactly as it has all this time,” said Robert Taylor, SPADOC program manager. “We know the equipment works now, but it’s near to end-of-life, so we have to replace everything that we can’t find replacement parts for, and do it without disrupting service.”
In order to field the system, Taylor’s team fabricated a smaller risk reduction testbed system for $200,000, ensuring SPADOC would work without interruption. When risk reduction concluded, the team began replacing the more than 900 square feet of servers and the power supply which underpins SPADOC with digital processes that will reduce the space needed to only six square feet. The switch will take approximately 15 months. The team expects all the upgrades to be complete by summer 2019.
Raytheon is under a five-year, $700 million operation, sustainment and maintenance contract for these legacy systems. Replacement of aging systems is a small part of that sustainment, but it removes the threat of equipment breaking with no replacement, while also saving on day-to-day power bills.
Generating a plan of action, performing risk reduction and testing, and beginning the process of physically replacing old equipment took less than a year-and-a-half. By this summer, the team at Peterson will have reduced something the size of a two-bedroom apartment down to the footprint of a washing machine and dryer.
“We’ve moved from old equipment to new and from old operating systems to new,” said 2nd Lt. Joseph Carter, who worked the effort. “We’ve switched from C++, which very few people actually know how to operate, to Linux, which is an open system architecture anyone with access can adapt in the future.”
U.S. Strategic Command certified the system to meet strict security requirements, according to Taylor. His team used agile principles to replace equipment, first by building a test system that worked and then scaling up until it could replace the entire system. They can’t precisely estimate cost savings, or potential future parts replacement savings, but they believe the system will pay for itself in a few years through a combination of power savings and reduced maintenance requirements.
And, the location where computers crunch space-borne object data on Peterson will be a little quieter.