Friday, February 19, 2010

Slowly uncovering more clues in the Misty-2/USA144 patch

I have written before about the launch patch of the enigmatic USA 144 launch from Vandenberg on 1999 May 22. This was possibly the Misty-2 stealth satellite (99-028A; while a piece of debris or intentional decoy from the same launch frequently observed by me and other trackers is 99-028C, the "USA 144 Decoy"):

In my earlier post, I wrote that the meaning of the tiger symbol remained a mystery. In this I based myself on noted patch intelligence sleuth Dwayne Day in his discussion of this patch in an overview article in The Space Review, who considered that the tiger was unexplained, although one option was that perhaps it might have "a hidden symbolic meaning for the program (like the dragons)". (the latter comment about dragons points to the use of winged dragon symbolism in launch and mission patches for SIGINT satellites).

I think I now might have come somewhat closer to interpreting the tiger on the patch. I think that, like the half illuminated earth globe with satellite, it designates a unit involved in the launch and mission.

Let me first recapitulate what I wrote earlier here. The black and white gridded globe with revolving satellite clutched in the tiger's claws, appears to be a reference to the 4th Space Launch Squadron (4th SLS), whose patch emblem was this one below:

The 4th SLS had almost exactly a year before the launch fused into the 2nd SLS, which itself is mentioned in the rim text of the USA 144 patch.

Note that the four yellow stars also feature in the 4th SLS patch. The 2nd SLS has only three stars in its emblem, which might explain the difference noted by Dwayne Day: "Another mystery is why the patch contains four stars, whereas the tee-shirt logo contains only three".
(alternatively, and maybe simultaniously, it could refer the 614th Space Operations Flight - see below - which had 3 gold stars in its emblem)

The tiger

But now: the tiger. I found the same symbolism of a tiger with an earth globe between its paws in this patch, which is a patch of the 614th Space Intelligence Squadron.

This unit post-dates the USA 144 launch, as the unit was activated in 2003 (the launch was in 1999). It is however a spawn of the 614th Space Operations Squadron, which was activated (as the 614th Space Operations Flight) in 1996, before the Misty-2 launch. The 614th Space Operations Squadron also featured the tiger symbology, in the form of two tiger eyes in the emblem patch:

The mission of the 614th SOPS was to "provide the component commander for Air Force space forces, COMSPACEAF, the expertise to command and control Aerospace forces in continuous support of global and theater operations".

Both the (related) units had headquarters based at Vandenberg. They have since all gone up in the 614th Air and Space Operations Center, which again has a tiger in its emblem.

Given the connection of this lineage of units to Vandenberg launches and tiger symbolism, I feel the tiger on the USA 144 patch could well represent the 614th Space Operations Squadron or a sibling unit.

In view of the establishment of the 614th SOPS/SOPF relatively shortly before the launch, maybe the text "The Cat's Out of the Bag!" could refer to USA 144 being perhaps the first mission initiated since it's formation. (from what I have found so far, it is not clear when the 614th SOPF became the 614th SOPS, but the transformation seems to have been completed by mid-1999). It is a nice double reference to the tiger of the 614th SOPS and the common meaning of the phrase "to let the cat out of the bag" (disclosing a secret, which basically is what a launch does: you let the thing that remained hidden so far fly out in the open).

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