Thirty years ago as an Air Force ROTC cadet at the University of Washington, Col. Shane Clark had no idea how his career would turn out, or the circuitous route he would take to where he is today as mission director for the launch of the U.S. Space Force’s USSF-7, and the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for the Department of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.
“I was planning to be an electrical engineer in the Air Force when I entered ROTC in 1986 but was later slated to be a navigator. The idea of flying around the world in a C-141 was very appealing. However, prior to commissioning, the Air Force reevaluated its navigator requirements and determined they didn’t need as many as originally projected. They then vectored me to the missile career field,” said Clark, a senior materiel leader with the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, and chief of the Atlas V and Delta IV division.
“I was initially disappointed, but quickly realized once I got to Vandenberg Air Force Base for Peacekeeper ICBM initial qualification training what an important mission it was — and still is — and my time at F.E. Warren Air Force Base was foundational to every success I’ve had throughout my career.”
Since his first assignment as a missileer entrusted with the awesome responsibility for 50 nuclear armed Peacekeeper ICBMs, Clark’s career highlights include internships at the Pentagon and DARPA, graduate school at both the Air Force Institute of Technology and U.S. Naval War College, military assistant to the Deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, working at the Missile Defense Agency, and a squadron commander tour flying Air Force, Navy and NASA satellites at Kirtland AFB in what is now known as SMC’s Advanced Systems and Development Directorate.
After 21 years of multiple TDYs back to Vandenberg, but never thinking he would be assigned there again, Clark was surprised and humbled to learn he was selected in late 2013 to serve as vice commander of the 30th Space Wing.
“Being vice commander of a Space Wing was a tremendous experience. Having responsibility across the entire wing and installation, in support of the commander, interfacing with Airmen from every career field, tenants, community leaders, state and national leadership, and higher headquarters was personally and professionally rewarding,” said Clark. “Providing Gen. Hyten an aerial tour of Vandenberg, the Air Force’s third largest base, and driving actor Gary Sinise of Forrest Gump fame around the base to meet Airmen were additional highlights. This was also my first exposure to space launch and range operations.”
Unlike Clark’s current position as either the mission director or senior launch vehicle advisor to the MD, at Vandenberg he was the launch decision authority (LDA) for the Western Range. The LDA, supported by a team of range and safety professionals, assesses the risk to people and critical resources for any launch or test activity on the range and provides or withholds “clear to launch.”
“I was LDA for a two space launches; Delta II and Falcon 9, two flight tests; Minuteman III and a Missile Defense Interceptor, and participated in numerous other launches and tests in a different capacity. Ironically, I was at Vandenberg when the X-37B landed in October 2014 after 674 days in orbit and now I’m launching the X-37B as the mission director for USSF-7.”
What Clark does now for the Launch Enterprise is what he considers the best O-6 job in the Space Force.
“I’ve had an amazing career working for and with incredible people. Every assignment has its rewards and unique challenges. I always tried to learn from any challenge (interpersonal, technical, schedule, etc.) and use that experience to either avoid a similar situation in the future or overcome it,” said Clark.
“I wasn’t successful every time but I avoided spectacular failures and kept the ball moving in the right direction. Some of my biggest challenges (learning moments) occurred as a company grade officer and Major. Additionally, performance in each job was a stepping stone to the next, starting with that first assignment at F.E. Warren,” Clark explained. “My leadership along the way played a key role in how I got to where I am today. I’m forever grateful for the leadership opportunities given, the feedback received and their influence on my career path.”
Clark considers it an honor and privilege to be the mission director for USSF-7, launching the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the SMC Launch Enterprise team and mission partners.
“As the MD, acting on behalf of Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of SMC, it’s my responsibility to ensure the integrated launch team (launch vehicle and space vehicle) are ready for launch with a data-driven, attention-to-detail focus, and give the final ‘Go’ for launch,” said Clark. “It’s truly a team effort, with years of collaboration between United Launch Alliance, the launch vehicle provider for this mission, SMC, Aerospace Corporation, the Boeing space vehicle team and the 45th Space Wing.”
When he’s not wearing his mission director hat for this particular launch, Clark is responsible for the space flight worthiness of the Atlas V rocket via a rigorous and independent mission assurance (MA) process. “That MA process is the secret sauce to our National Security Space Launch program’s perfect record over the last 17 years,” said Clark. “I’m proud to have played a role in that success during the last four years and 18 NSS launches prior to USSF-7.”
With USSF-7 now successfully in orbit after a one day delay due to weather, Clark concludes his final launch as mission director and turns his attention to his next “mission” later this summer. After 28+ years of active duty, he is moving to Huntsville, Ala. and retirement.
“The whole family is excited to finally settle into our forever home with no more PCS’s in sight,” said Clark. “My aperture is wide open for my post-military career. I have one must have: Find something I enjoy with a team I enjoy working with.”
When questioned about whether he thought of joining the newly formed Space Force, Clark said the timing unfortunately just didn’t meet the needs of his family, but he is helping with the standup of Space Systems Command and excited to see it and the Space Force evolve over time.
“The mission of the Space Force, enabled by the men and women of the future Space Systems Command is so incredibly important to our Nation and allies,” said Clark. “I look forward to watching their successes and perhaps contributing somehow in my next ‘assignment’.”
Reflecting upon where he’s been since an Air Force cadet to a retiring colonel, Clark said there is no precise path to a successful career.
“Blossom where you are planted, or said differently, do the best you can in the job you have. It’s rare that every opportunity we get is the exact position we’d want or the job we enjoy the most. However, if you do your best, strive to make a difference and foster a positive atmosphere, you’ll succeed in the Space or Air Force.”