Guardian’s First Launch as Program Manager

  • Published
  • By Linda Strine – SMC Launch Enterprise
  • Space and Missile Systems Center Public Affairs

Guardians and Airmen from the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise team successfully launched an experimental research payload for the Air Force Research Laboratory March 3, 2021, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

 The launch benchmarked numerous firsts for SMC’s Small Launch and Targets Division, and also for one U.S. Space Force officer in particular, 1st Lt. Jacob Mendoza, who served as the mission’s program manager.

This was the first USSF small launch mission for 2021, the first AFRL-dedicated partnership with NASA Wallops, the first USSF sounding rocket mission by commercial launch provider Space Vector Corporation, and the first launch ever for Mendoza.

Mendoza hails from Palmdale, California and attended California Lutheran University, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in 2018. While attending CLU, he was an Air Force ROTC Crosstown Cadet at the University of California, Los Angeles and commissioned in the Air Force in 2018.

“This was such an exciting opportunity and experience for me to have for my first assignment as a lieutenant in the Launch Enterprise working with AFRL and the Space Vector Corporation as the program manager,” Mendoza stated.

Over the past 14 months, Mendoza put his efforts toward the success of this launch campaign – most of it spent working under COVID-19 restrictions. However, industry partner Space Vector, along with their subcontractor Kratos Space and Missile Defense, who both were responsible for the integration, interface and mission planning for the launch, worked out an amiable battle rhythm with SMC’s Small Launch and Targets Division and AFRL.

When asked what has kept him awake for these past months, Mendoza replied, “Just getting this mission executed perfectly!” 

Mendoza, who traveled to Virginia in preparation for the launch weeks ahead of most his teammates, was reunited with the remainder of his Small Launch team when they arrived at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility a few days out. On the day of launch, he said weather conditions were perfect and he felt “the stars were aligning.”

“Everything was falling into place. Being superstitious, I did not want to jinx anything,” Mendoza said.

He was able to join Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, the mission director and division chief of the Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division, on console during the countdown.

“Listening to all the communication going on that last hour made me nervous,” Mendoza said. “When we got to the 20-minute countdown mark before launch, I was thinking of all of the things we had worked on for the past year and a half that were at stake.”

Mendoza explained he got chills as he watched the Terrier-Terrier-Oriole launch vehicle lift off the rails into the sky. Nine minutes later, Stage 2 separation was confirmed, and the team claimed mission success. “Just how we planned it,” Mendoza stated.

The experience taught Mendoza valuable lessons he said he will use in the future: interfacing with top industry and government executives, developing a launch communications plan, attending public affairs briefings, and of course, all of the key milestone elements that led to mission success, which included briefing Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, SMC commander and program executive officer for Space, during the flight readiness review prior to launch.

Mendoza explained the launch made him aware of the large scope of responsibility he had with the mission.

During the launch campaign, on Feb. 9, 2021, Mendoza was officially commissioned into the USSF, making the launch even more meaningful to him.

“This mission is a great example of the innovation in SMC contracting and using small launch contracts to expand our capability and provide support in launching experimental missions,” Rose stated. “Kudos to Lt. Mendoza on a job extremely well done, and congratulations to the entire government and industry team on successfully launching this important mission in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Mendoza credits and thanks his leadership team for affording him the chance of a lifetime for this first USSF assignment.

“I can’t thank Lt. Col. Rose and the leadership team enough in selecting me for this assignment and for all the support and mentoring they provided me during this mission campaign.  As a result, I have already begun the launch planning for my next mission, working with the Air Force Materiel Command.