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Les Nelson

An excerpt from the upcoming book, The Rise of Air Force Space Command.

1st Lieutenant Les Nelson was barely seasoned in the missile operations world when he was ‘invited’ to transition into a program cloaked in secrecy in the late 1960s. He had committed to serving his country in the Air Force (AF), the nation’s newest branch of service, established Sept 18 1947. As the Vietnam war heightened, he enrolled in the AF ROTC program at the University of MN in Duluth. It was the only ROTC program the university had. Inspired by his father’s service stories of WWII, Les had boyhood interest in the Army and Army Air Corps; but in the absence of those options, Les began his decorated career in the Air Force.

Upon graduation and commissioning, the AF sent Les to McConnel AFB in Kansas. He was heading to the 381st Strategic Missile Warning Wing where he would work the Titan II, a monstrous workhorse of a missile originating from General Schriever’s Titan I arsenal. The Titan was leveraged early on by the Americans to keep the peace in the growing concerns of the nuclear age. As Les readied to upgrade to crew commander in the summer of 1970 after a notable fast run as a deputy commander, Les received an unexpected phone call. A friend from his ROTC days was now an assignments officer reaching out to young officers identified as top tier personnel to bring into the AF’s newest career field—space operations. The friend and colleague asked if Les might be interested in transitioning careers.

It was an unexpected call for which Les had no time to prepare. “I guess I didn’t ask many questions because I didn’t know what I should be asking,” Les mused. “I did have the presence of mind to ask to what career field I would be transitioning.” The answer was a two-word reply: “space ops.” Les had a followup question, “ Doing what?” Kennedy’s promise of landing an American on the moon had been fulfilled just two years prior to this conversation, so ‘space’ was a big deal. But the assignment officer’s answer was less than glamorous and even less informative. “Communications,” came the reply. Then crickets. No more was offered. The absence of details led to a void of thought, so the conversation ended with Les promising to think about it, “I’ll call you back in a week or so”.