Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Superbowl and Things

This weekend is Superbowl XLIII (43 for those trying to figure it out).  But I already had my Superbowl...and guess what?  

I won it!

Yes, my fantasy football league superbowl game was played almost a month ago, and I was victorious.  The game started out slow, and at halftime, I was far behind.  But in the second half, Drew Brees and Donald Driver both put up numbers which brought me back into the game.  And then, with minutes to go, the score was tied.  But I had my field goal kicker still to play, and when the Sunday games were finished, I still had a two point lead, and the victory.

This was my fourth season as a fantasy football player.  I'm proud of the win and even though I won the big game, I didn't get a ring, nor a big trophy.  I did receive a book with photos of past winners, and my photo will be included as a champion of the "There Can Be Only One" Fantasy Football League.

My fantasy football victory isn't the only proud moment of my life.  During my Air Force career, I accomplished many things I'm proud of.  I antaganized Soviet soldiers in East Berlin, I flipped off the chancelor of East Berlin, I won awards for my journalism skills and I faced down Mother Nature.

But my greatest pride came at a place close to the top of the world.

I was stationed at Thule AB, Greenland at the time.  The base is located somewhere between the  North Pole and the Arctic Circle on the west side of the island.  Although I started getting a bit of cabin fever near the end of my year there, I still enjoyed the assignment. 

At the time, the Cold War was still going strong with the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the two big men on campus.  In January 1983, events began to happen which, in the end, would prove to be my greatest accomplishment in my career.

In the Summer of 1982, the Soviet Union launched a satellite into orbit.  I don't know the function of Kosmos 1402, but I do know it was carrying a small nuclear reactor.  A couple of months after its boost into space, things started going wrong, and the satellite's orbit began to decay.  When it appeared 1402 would definitely reenter the atmosphere, folks began wondering when and where.  But it was too early to tell.

At Thule, life was going on as usual during the cold, dark Winter months.

Then one day, I was informed that a Swedish journalist who claimed to have visited Thule, had written an article about his trip.  He wrote about the missiles and bombs and if I remember correctly, the submarines he saw at Thule AB.  This very much puzzled myself and our Danish liaison officer, as none of the items the reporter mentioned seeing were positioned at or anywhere near the base. 

A little background is needed here now.  Thule AB was primarily a radar support base.  The largest radar array (at that time) was situated several miles northeast of the base along the cliffs of a fiord.  The job of the people at Thule was to provide support for that site, and several other out-lying radar units.  My job was that of noncommissioned officer in charge of the Public Affairs Office.  Among other duties, I met and escort visiting news media around the base.  Since the base was on Danish soil (Greenland still belonged to Denmark at this time), we had a Status of Forces Agreement with the Danish government which spelled out what we could do and have on the base.  To monitor what the U.S. Air Force was doing there, members of the Danish navy were assigned as liaison personnel.  Their office was a couple of doors along the hall from my office.

Back to my story.

Not long after the article was published (I believe it was around mid January 1983), the liaison officer came to my office and asked if I had escorted a Swedish journalist around the base.  I told him I hadn't, and since I had to have his approval, before I could approve the visit of any media organization, he knew the journalist had never been on the base.  He then explained the reason for his question and told me he would provide me with a translation of the article when he got a copy of it.

Less than a week later, unrelated events began to combine.  One was the article written about Thule AB.  The other was the orbit of Kosmos 1402.  

A couple of days after asking me about the article, the liaison officer was recalled to Denmark.  I was told he had left in a rush by one of the other people in his office.  It couldn't have been more than two days after Commander Johanssen's return to Denmark, when I received a call from him.

He informed me that he was testifying before the Danish Parliament regarding the article written by the Swedish journalist.  Parliament was concerned because what was written about was a violation of the SOFA, something which could lead to dismissal of the agreement and loss of American rights to use the base.  And that is just what the parliament was thinking at the time.

Cmdr. Johannsen gave me a brief rundown of what was going on and informed me things weren't looking good.   He had told parliament that the article was a fabrication and parliament basically asked him to prove it.  All he could do was state that the Americans were following the SOFA and only supporting the BMEWS radar site (BMEWS stood for Ballistic Missile Early Warning System).  But the Danish Parliament was skeptical.

As proof of our good intentions, Cmdr. Johannsen was asked for something the Danish government was having difficulty obtaining.  

Here is where Kosmos 1402 enters the picture.  By this time - the end of January, everyone around the world knew the satellite was going to reenter Earth's atmosphere.  But where, no one knew.  The space tracking facility at NORAD, in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado was closely watching the object, trying to predict its reentry, using orbital data from numerous radar sites around the world.  However, other governments needing the data, were having a difficult time getting up-to-date number, as they had to go through the U.S. State Department to obtain the information.  For the most part, this meant any data they received was close to 24 hour old.  Old data meant inaccurate predictions.  And this included the Danish government, who were especially concerned since the orbit of the satellite at that time brought it over the area of the North Sea and near Denmark.

So the Danish Parliament asked Cmdr. Johannsen, since he was the liaison officer at the base supporting the largest and most powerful radar system in the world, if he could get more accurate orbital elements.  Orbital elements are numbers which when used with proper equations, will show where an object in space is, and what its current path will be, should the orbit remain unchanged.

Cmdr. Johannsen then called me.  I don't know if he called anyone else before me, but he and I had worked together on a number of projects and we both had great respect for each other.  When I got on the phone, he informed me of how bad things were looking and then told me about parliament's request for the better orbital elements.  We talked a little bit about situation, then set a call back time.  We both hoped I would have the requested information by that time.

After hanging up, I called the BMEWS office and inquired about the elements.  I was informed they couldn't release the information without approval from NORAD.  I then asked for verification that if I got the approval, they could provide me with what I needed.  Even though I was making an official request, the officer I was talking to, was tight-lipped and wouldn't even verify if they could provide the data.

After discussing the situation with my boss, we decided the best course of action would be to wait for the Public Affairs Officer at NORAD to open, and call them.  So an hour or so later, I placed a call to the NORAD PA office.  I explained the situation to the lady who answered, and she put me through to the officer in charge of the office.  Although they didn't have the information I needed, I was given the number to another office which could help me.  So I asked to have my call forwarded and waited for someone to answer on the other end.

During this time, I could only hope my goal was soon within reach.  When a gentleman answered on the other end of the line, I again explained the situation and asked him if he could help.  He not only could give me the most current and up-to-date orbital numbers, he also gave me the civilian phone number to his office and informed me the Danish people tracking the satellite could call him anytime for updates. 

After breathing a sigh of relief, and then verifying the numbers I had which were less than 20 minutes old at the time, I hung up and waited for Cmdr. Johannsen to call me back.  An hour later, at the agreed time, my phone rang and I heard the rough, yet familiar voice of Cmdr. Johannsen on the other end.

I gave him the numbers I was given, and the phone number which could be called to obtain newer numbers.  He thanked me and we hung up.  I then went back to work on other projects.

A few days later, Cmdr. Johannsen walked into my office again.  This time he wanted to thank me for what I did.  He explained how the information I gave him was given to members of the Danish Parliament and a vote on the situation at Thule AB shortly thereafter, went in favor of the base.  The situation was contained, thanks in part to my help.  He then said something which brought a knot to my throat and almost a tear in my eye.  He said, "You saved Thule base."

I smiled and said, "Anytime you need anything, just ask."  He laughed and walked out of my office.  I never spoke about the incident to anyone after that until about a month later.  I received a call from someone in the State Department.  This person wanted to know who it was who circumvented the State Department and provided the Danish government with data regarding Kosmos 1402.  I informed him that I was that person.

He began to tell me how many state department regulations I had bypassed and before he could go too deep into his tirade, I told him he really needed to talk to my commander.  I offered to transfer his call to the colonel's office, but instead, he stuttered a few things about protocol, I said, "Yes...thank you," and hung up.  That was the last I ever spoke regarding Swedish journalists, Danish Parliament and Kosmos 1402.

That my friends, is and probably will be, my proudest moment.  In case you are wondering, Kosmos 1402 burned in over the Atlantic Ocean on Feb, 7, 1983.