‘I wanted to work in the space field’: Space Force commander inspired by Onizuka

  • Published
  • By John Burnett, Hawaii Tribune-Herald
  • Space Base Delta 3

A visit in the early 1980s by astronaut and Kealakekua native Ellison Onizuka to Waiakeawaena Elementary School turned out to be a life-defining event for at least one student of the Hilo school.

“I may have been seven or eight years old, and he was such a big deal,” said U.S. Space Force Col. Mia Walsh, who was then Mia Tsutsumi. “He was the first astronaut from Hawaii. He was the first Japanese American astronaut. He was the first Buddhist astronaut. It was a huge deal. You know, he came from a small town in Kona, kind of similar upbringing.

“And I just knew, right then, I wanted to go to space. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to work in the space field.”

The 47-year-old Walsh didn’t become an astronaut like Air Force Lt. Col. Onizuka, one of the seven crew members who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. But the 1993 Waiakea High School graduate received her commission as an Air Force officer in 1998 after graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a degree in mathematics.

On July 14, Walsh became the commanding officer of Space Base Delta 3, formerly known as Los Angeles Garrison, at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif.

Walsh is the first Space Force commander of the unit, leading five squadrons and six staff agencies, totaling more than 850 military and civilian personnel with $1.3 billion in physical assets and a $60 million annual budget. It’s a command for which she’s prepared. As a lieutenant colonel, Walsh commanded the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg AFB in California from 2017-2019.

During the ceremony in which Walsh assumed command of the base, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command, quoted one of her former military bosses in praise of her abilities and qualifications.

“She has a bulldog tenacity coupled with a diplomat’s touch,” Guetlein said. “She’s a peerless officer/warrior/advocate and the best space operator in my 33 years. She easily converts concepts into actions.”

True to her Hawaii roots where people — regardless of accomplishments — are expected to remain humble, Walsh described the general’s remarks as “very embarrassing.”

Walsh on Oct. 1 will celebrate 24 years of military service between the Air Force and Space Force. She acknowledged a general lack of public understanding about the Space Force.

“You can think of the Space Force like you think of the Marines and the Navy,” Walsh explained. “The Space Force is its own service but under the Department of the Air Force, just like the Marine Corps is its own service under the Department of the Navy.”

Walsh’s specialty is space domain awareness, which she described as “basically tracking what’s up there — tracking the satellites, tracking the debris.” While there are obvious military applications, Walsh said her command’s mission, and space in general, are “incredibly important” to everyday people who might be unaware of the importance.

“Most people will think of the most obvious things, like GPS — all your position, navigation and timing,” she said. “Every time you drive a car and you’re asking where should you go, that’s all done by GPS. Anytime shipments go where they need to go, that’s all done by GPS. … But then, I think there’s things that other people don’t think of, like how do you get money out of an ATM?

“Space is a part of what everybody does every day that they don’t think about.”

Walsh and her husband, Mark, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, are the parents of two teens — daughter Taylor, 16, and son Dylan, 13. Walsh looks to her own parents, Hardy and Carole Tsutsumi, as role models.

“My parents always encouraged me,” she said. “When I was little and I wanted to be an astronaut, they never said it was something that I couldn’t do or couldn’t be. I’m the youngest of three girls, and I was always encouraged to do what I wanted to do, always supported. It’s not like I came from a particularly athletic background. I definitely didn’t play any sports in high school. My dad was, like, ‘We’ll train, and we’ll get there.’ He put up a pull-up bar. He took me to Hilo High track and we would run together.”

As a high schooler, Walsh played organ at Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin, where she also taught Sunday school and attended Japanese school. She said Hilo is integral to who she is.

“I make it back home once a year,” she said, adding she’s still in touch with friends from childhood.

Walsh’s previous assignment was as chief of operations for the National Joint Operations and Intelligence Center in the Pentagon.

Her family remains in Washington, D.C., so their daughter can finish high school there.

“As a realist, I think you have to balance what you want in your life — your family obligations with your service obligations,” she said. “But I think it can absolutely be done. My family’s in D.C., and we’re going to make it work. I’m lucky. I talk to the kids everyday on FaceTime. I can go out there once a month. My boss is incredibly supportive of the fact that my family’s in D.C., and I’m here.”

Walsh said there is a multitude of opportunities for women in the military.

“I don’t feel like I’ve ever been held back because of my gender,” she said. “When I was more of a junior officer, I remember going to a panel. And the women on the panel said they were all not married. That was their choice. Because if you had a family, you were kind of expected to get out of the military. And that’s just not the case anymore.

“I think for the younger generation, it’s important for them to see female leaders who have families, who make those sacrifices. And I think it’s not unusual to see that these days, which is nice. I have a lot of friends who’ve made serving our county and having a family work. And I think it’s great that we have that opportunity.”