The history of the Wisconsin Air Guard in space

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tom Milbourn
  • Wisconsin State Public Affairs

The Air Force's role in space can be traced back to the establishment of the Western Development Division in July of 1954 when work began on developing the ICBM, launch vehicles that would also be adapted to place military satellites into space. Then in September of 1982, the Air Force Space Command was established to serve as the Air Force’s operational command for military space systems. Over the years, the Wisconsin Air National Guard has supported this space mission. A July 1996 issue of the BAM, the newspaper for the 115th Fighter Wing, highlighted this contribution.

The journey lasted only a couple of minutes, but the event marked the dawning of a new era of Wisconsin flight. It was the first sub-orbital rocket ever launched out of Wisconsin. And the Wisconsin Air National Guard was there.

On a sunny Saturday morning in May, an 11-foot-tall Super Loki rocket, weighing 70 pounds, was launched out over Lake Michigan from a specially built launch pad in Sheboygan Harbor. Traveling at five times the speed of sound, it was the culmination of years of planning and months of preparation.

And, according to project director George French of the Wisconsin Space Business Round Table, the project would not have been successful without the key participation of the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

"They were absolutely essential to the successful completion of this launch," French told a gathering of dignitaries in Sheboygan just prior to the launch.

"We are very proud to have been a key player in this important project," proclaimed Brig. Gen. Al Wilkening, Deputy Adjutant General for Air, at the pre-launch ceremony. "It has been a unique opportunity for us to again be a good neighbor and provide equipment and Guard members in support of this educational initiative."

The project was part of the hands-on "Rockets for Schools” program which focuses on stimulating the academic interest and excitement of Wisconsin middle and high school students in math and science, and specifically various aerospace opportunities.

For this project, 45 students, five from each congressional district, were selected from around the state, brought to Sheboygan for two days, where they became part of various teams including launch range safety, tracking, and communication, payload and recovery.

But the fact that there was even a rocket to launch in Sheboygan is where the Wisconsin Air National Guard comes in.

After the first "Rockets for Schools" launch in Florida in 1993, the Aerospace State Association, sponsors of the initial launch, chose to initiate a permanent educational "Rockets for School” program. They received from the Florida Spaceport Authority four sub-orbital rockets. Wisconsin got one of them and, as it turns out, was the first to launch. But how do you get this rocket from the shores of the Atlantic to the shore of Lake Michigan?

Enter the Wisconsin Air National Guard. In April 1995, a KCR-135 refueling tanker from Milwaukee's 128th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) transported the rocket to Wisconsin as part of a training mission. The Guard's involvement had actually begun at the very beginning when retired Lt. Col. Tom Thomas, a former guard pilot and current aviation chief for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation had convened a meeting in Madison on two months earlier.

Not only did the Air Guard provide the transportation from Florida to Wisconsin, but it provided a year-long storage spot at Volk Field where it was overseen by the 128th Air Control Squadron (ACS). Former 128th ACS commander, retired Lt Col Bob Schick chaired the launch's Launch and Range Safety committee. This included the coordination, the participation, and involvement of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Sheboygan Area Coordinating Committee.

The 115th Fighter Wing provided its C-26 aircraft to transport the launch team from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that supervised the entire pre-launch, launch, and recovery effort.

After a year in storage, the 128th ACS transported the rocket to Sheboygan where security for the launch site was provided by the 128th ARW.

The ground tracking radar, range safety control was provided by a 128th ACS mobile radar and operations module.

"We supported the project enthusiastically," reflected Maj. Herb Dannenberg, 128th ACS commander, "not only because of the great educational value for our young people but because it also gave us another chance to do some real-world training." The unit's radar at its home base of Volk Field data linked images of all air traffic in the area to the launch site in Sheboygan.

With crowds of space enthusiasts and community leaders watching from across the harbor channel, the launch proceeded on time and on course. The rocket climbed to more than 34 miles above the Lake, then ejected its payload carrying weather instruments, a tracking chip, and a camera. Spent rocket stages fell within the Controlled Firing Area which was in Lake Michigan and within 22 miles of the launch site. Later, sponsors retrieved the four-pound payload which returned to earth by parachute near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

The event attracted statewide media attention and was also broadcast on Sheboygan's public access cable channel and on the Internet.

And the Air Guard's participation is not over. On behalf of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, General Wilkening has already committed to supporting future launches consistent with the many opportunities it provides the Air Guard.

And, if George French has his way, the next rocket launch in Wisconsin will come in the next year as part of a larger, on-going effort to improve the math and science training and the space education of the next generation.