Dexter Walker never wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, and involvement with space exploration was never a dream. Although his father retired from the U.S. Navy, a military career was not on the radar, either.
Even as college football led him to the U.S. Air Force Academy, the former Dacula High standout envisioned a short stay in the armed forces. The mission was to complete the required commitment and move on with his life, rather than make a career out of it.
Now the 27-year-old finds himself in a different position — both the military and outer space are his future.
“Early on in my career, I thought get out (of the Air Force) sooner rather than later, but the more that I learned, the more I was able to see, the more I was able to meet people and to be part of history, that gave me the same feeling I was getting playing sports,” Walker said. “Now I can’t see myself getting away from it.”
His latest thrilling encounter with history happened May 30, when he served as surveillance control officer for the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon rocket and spacecraft. The mission sent two NASA astronauts into outer space and to the International Space Station, marking the first time humans traveled into the Earth’s orbit from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. It also was the first time in history a commercial aerospace company has carried humans into earth’s orbit.
The launch site was Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Walker’s post since his 2016 graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has worked closely with NASA as part of the 45th Space Wing, an Air Force Space Command base for space lift.
“It was extremely cool,” said Walker, a management major with a minor in engineering at the Academy. “Operationally, I’ve sat in on quite a few missions so it wasn’t really while I was on console, that was not different from what I’m used to every time we’re doing a mission. But it was overwhelming at times realizing the magnitude of what we were doing and how impactful what we were doing was for history.”
Walker, as surveillance control officer, was responsible for ensuring public safety through air and sea space operations during the monumental SpaceX and NASA launch. He was commander of surveillance for Falcon 9 Crew Demo 2 and oversaw a 10-person crew.
“Mr. David Pugh, as the other SCO, ensures redundancy to ensure the surveillance crews’ responsibility is done flawlessly,” Walker said. “Mr. Pugh is the lead surveillance operator for the Eastern Range and without his guidance and investment in me as an operator I may not have had this opportunity to be a part of history for this mission.”
Half of Walker’s 10-person crew focused primarily on air surveillance operations, while the other half worked on sea surveillance operation. Jacki Grant was an air space manager, coordinating the clearance of the restricted air space used in the launch. She worked with two contracted civilians and two aerospace control officers, John Eno and Alex Meza. Ashley Hall and Ascheleigh Downum oversaw a clear water front with the help of the 301st Rescue Squadron and the United States Coast Guard, commanding two helicopters and two Coast Guard vessels.
“Because of my entire surveillance crew, our responsibility to ensure public safety was completed flawlessly,” Walker said.
Two days after the launch, on Monday, June 1, Walker had another memorable event in his Air Force career as he was promoted to captain in front of family and friends.
“It was definitely exciting,” he said of the promotion. “It was up there with graduating from the Academy and being able to meet President (Barack) Obama.”
The newly appointed captain will trade in the warm Florida weather for a return to Colorado, where he spent his college years. He will be stationed with command control at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora for the next stage of what promises to be a long military career.
From there, Walker’s career gets really interesting. He has completed paperwork to make more history as a member of the newly formed U.S. Space Force, the space warfare branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. The new branch, managed under the Department of the Air Force, is the first branch of the U.S. military added since the formation of the Air Force in 1947.
The chance to join the U.S. Space Force at its beginning is another major milestone in the young captain’s career.
“Being part of history once again is pretty crazy,” Walker said. “It’s overwhelmingly crazy how much history I’ve been part of in a short period of time.”