Like Father, Like Son: Col Stephen Purdy's Legacy in MILSATCOM

Military satellite communications is in the blood of the Purdy family. Both Col. Stephen Purdy, Jr. and his father Col. Stephen Purdy, Sr. have served here at the Space and Missile Systems Center.  The Purdy family military tradition goes back another generation to Lt. Col. Ralph Purdy, who served as an Army chaplain.

As Col. Stephen Purdy, Jr., program manager for the DoD's $12 billion Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite program, prepares to lead the efforts toward launch of the fourth AEHF vehicle in 2017, he and his team must go through an intricate series of Integrated Crew Exercises. Part of the launch readiness procedures include several detailed weather reports that cover everything from anvil heights to cloud undergrowth layers, ensuring the most accurate weather picture possible leading up to the moment of launch. These highly technical weather reports weren't always available for launches of some of the DoD's most expensive military assets, however, and interestingly enough, Col. Purdy’s father, Col. Stephen Purdy, Sr., can tell you the importance firsthand of why the weather experts at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are so paranoid when it comes to launch.

When Col. Stephen Purdy, Sr., came to SMC for the second time in his 30-year Air Force career, it was 1989 and the Air Force had just lost its Fleet Satellite Communication Satellite (FLTSATCOM) 6 satellite, which was supposed to provide communication capability to the Navy. At the time, Col Purdy, Sr., recounts, the weather center was located four miles from the Cape Canaveral launch pad, and the weather analyst on site would rely on a visual assessment to make the final call. The weather analyst at the FLTSATCOM 6 launch didn't see lightning, so it was a "go." Due to an un-vented fairing on the satellite, lightning struck upon launch, causing FLTSATCOM 6 to fail to get beyond Low Earth Orbit, rendering it useless. Col Purdy, Sr., had an important job as the program director for the SMC Satellite Communications (SATCOM) Directorate (now known as the MILSATCOM Directorate). Along with managing DSCS II, DSCS III, and AFSATCOM programs, he also had to help the FLTSATCOM program recover from its loss and find a way to build and launch a final FLTSATCOM satellite. At the time, General Dynamics, the contractor that built the Atlas G rocket, only had one model left, a "qual" model, not deemed flight-worthy. As an added challenge, the only FLTSATCOM satellite left was also a "qual" model that hung from the ceiling at the Smithsonian Institute. With some creative thinking and acquisition strategy, Col Purdy, Sr. and his team were able to get approval to make both "qual" models flight-worthy and launch them into space, this time with direction from the SMC three-star general to not "launch the damn satellite in a thunderstorm."

Stories like this one from Col Purdy, Sr.'s Air Force career certainly influenced his son, who decided to join the Air Force after completing his undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The family's history of military service actually goes back even further, starting with Army Lt. Col. Ralph Purdy, Col Stephen Purdy, Jr.'s grandfather, who served as an Army chaplain. Each service dress rank worn by Col Purdy, Jr. has been worn by his father and grandfather at one time or another, a tradition not many still adhere to in today's Air Force.


Today, Col Purdy, Jr. finds himself in a similar career position as his father almost 25 years ago, but with a very different strategic mindset. In his father's time, Desert Shield and Desert Storm drove the rapid fielding of communications satellites to provide bandwidth that did not exist in certain areas of the world. Today bandwidth is readily available, but the U.S. must now shift its focus to protecting our space assets from our enemies and finding ways to continue communications capability when our fielded systems reach their end-of-life. The differences between the space environment, acquisitions policy, and the Air Force now and then make for unique family discussions when Col Purdy, Jr. and his family visit his parents at their home in Texas, and who knows, may inspire the next generation to one day follow their father's and grandfather's legacy in MILSATCOM.