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Space Force Lands in a Southern California High School

When you think about Space Force — if you think about Space Force — there’s a good chance you’re picturing the Netflix parody series starring Steve Carell and John Malkovich: Or perhaps you saw the official insignia last summer, and thought, ‘Wait, isn’t that the Starfleet logo from Star Trek?’ (For the record, the logo was adapted from the Air Force Space Command logo, originally created in 1961, pre-dating Star Trek.)

But it’s no joke: in December 2019, Space Force officially became the newest independent military branch since the creation of the Air Force in 1947.

And it’s expanding rapidly, right here in California; Los Angeles Air Force Base and Vandenberg Air Force Base are both now official Space Force Bases.

Along with these military bases, the Space Force has selected ten Junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) units for conversion across the country. One of them is the The Academy of Academic Excellence (AAE), a small K-12 charter school, in Apple Valley, a town in the high desert in San Bernardino County.

MSgt. (Ret.) Sonny Padua (left) and Colonel (Ret.) George Armstrong (right) stand in front of a Space Force flag in the JRTOC classroom at the Academy of Academic Excellence in Apple Valley. Colonel Armstrong helped launch the school’s Air Force JROTC program, which he runs, along with MSgt. Padua.

The school’s current Air Force JROTC unit launched in 2007 with the help of Colonel (Ret.) George Armstrong, who now leads the unit as their Senior Aerospace Science Instructor.

Colonel Armstrong moved to Apple Valley after retiring from the Air Force in 1998, with a goal. “As I was looking where to move after I retired, I was also looking to teach Junior ROTC in high school,” he said. When he found The Academy, he knew it was the right place. “Because they were doing air and space back then. They had their connection with NASA and all that. And I said, well, this is perfect. We need to get a unit going.”

The Academy is one of two schools run by the Lewis Center for Educational Research and both have an emphasis on STEAM education. The organization also helps run the 34-meter Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) as part of a partnership with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Access to the telescope allows students to participate in the collection of real scientific data. They also scan for radio signals in space to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

The Academy averages around 120 students per grade level. And the existing Air Force JROTC is a popular program at the school. The first of the 38 students joined. But for several years, around 25% of the eligible high school-aged students have joined the unit.

“I wish I could find a formula or bottle it,” said Armstrong, “For some reason, all of the top end students join ROTC here. And this year we have 171.” The cadets are part of the color guard, drill team, perform community service, and learn military discipline, though most don’t end up joining the military. They have twice been selected as a Distinguished Unit with Merit.

All these factors seem to make AAE’ s Air Force JROTC unit a natural choice to pilot a brand new Space Force program. But Colonel Armstrong said they were nearly overlooked, because they weren’t close to an associated base at the time. It was by chance they discovered it was even a possibility.

Earlier this year the cadets were learning about a type of satellites called CubeSats. “The size of a loaf of bread,” Armstrong said. “I said, ‘hey, cadets, how about if we develop our own CubeSat?’”

The school’s principal suggested to the Colonel that the students could use GAVRT to remotely control some existing satellites. Armstrong got in touch with the regional director of AFJROTC to see if there was existing curriculum he could use to teach the cadets. The director told him, “you just emailed me at the right time,” they were looking for units to convert to Space Force Junior ROTC’.”

The unit applied, and was accepted. At a school where JROTC is a big deal, there was a lot of excitement. 17-year-old Jennifer Weis is the Cadet Group Commander of the school’s Air Force unit. She recalls when they first heard the news. “I was having a staff meeting with senior staff, then my phone chimes. And I literally started screaming into the mic saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to turn into a Space Force! It’s just been announced!’”

Colonel (Ret) George Armstrong (rear), Cadet Group Commander Jennifer Weis (center left), cadet Faith Zinn (center right) and MSgt (Ret.) Sonny Padua (front) stand in their JROTC classroom on the Academy of Academic Excellence campus.

As a graduating senior, Weis won’t be able to participate in the new unit, but she’s still excited for the cadets who will. She says she’s found a lot of support in the program. “We have people you wouldn’t think would be in ROTC. Like I used to be a ballerina and nobody would expect me to be the Group Commander of an ROTC unit.”

Weis says they spent the last part of the school year preparing for the start of the new term in August, when the Space Force conversion will be official. “I’m just happy for the incoming cadets who actually have the opportunity to participate.”

That includes incoming freshman like 14-year-old astronomy enthusiast Natalie Ritter. “I always wanted to be in ROTC and so when I heard it was Space Force ROTC, I got even more excited because it’s two things that I really love and they’re coming together and I get to be a part of that.”

Ritter has big plans for the future— “I’d like to be an aerospace engineer and a pilot,” she said, “Even beyond that, maybe an astronaut, if I can. I’d for sure want to fly a rocket if I got the chance.”

She hopes four years as a Space Force JROTC Cadet will help set her on a path to the stars.

Copyright 2021 KQED