Colonel Armstrong moved to Apple Valley after retiring from the Air Force in 1998 with a purpose. “As I was looking for where to move after retirement, I was also looking to teach junior ROTC in high school,” he said. When he found the academy, he knew it was the right place. “Because they were doing air and space at the time. They had their NASA connection and all that. And I said, well, that’s perfect. We need to launch a unit.
AAE is one of two schools operated by the Lewis Center for Educational Research, and both emphasize STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education. The organization also helps operate the 34-meter Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) through a partnership with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Access to the telescope allows students to participate in the collection of real scientific data. They also search for radio signals in space to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
The academy has an average of about 120 students per grade level. And the existing Air Force Junior ROTC is a popular program at the school. The first year, 38 students enrolled. But for several years, about 25% of eligible high school students have joined the unit.
“I wish I could find a formula or bottle it,” Armstrong said. “For some reason, all the top students join ROTC here. And this year we have 171.” Cadets serve on the color party, drill team, perform community service and learn military discipline, though most don’t end up joining the military . They have twice been selected as a Distinguished Unit with Merit.
All of these factors seem to make AAE’s Junior Air Force ROTC unit a natural fit to pilot an all-new Space Force program. But Armstrong said they were all but forgotten, as they were nowhere near an associated base at the time. It was by chance that they discovered that was even a possibility.
Earlier this year, cadets discovered a type of satellite called CubeSats. “The size of a loaf of bread,” Armstrong said. “I said, ‘Hey, cadets, how about we develop our own CubeSat?’ ”
The school principal suggested to the colonel that the students could use GAVRT to remotely control some existing satellites. Armstrong got in touch with the regional Air Force junion ROTC director to see if there was an existing program he could use to teach cadets. The director told him, “You just emailed me at the right time.” They were looking for units to convert to Space Force Junior ROTCs.
The unit applied and was accepted. At a school where junior ROTC is a big deal, there was a lot of excitement. Jennifer Weis, 17, is the school’s Air Force unit cadet group commander. She remembers when they first heard the news.
“I had a staff meeting with senior executives, and then my phone rang,” Weis said. “And I literally started screaming into the mic saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to turn into a space force! It was just announced!’”
As a graduating senior, Weis won’t be able to participate in the new unit, but she’s still excited for the cadets who will. She says she found a lot of support in the program. “We have people you wouldn’t think were in ROTC. Like I was a ballerina and no one would expect me to be the squad commander of an ROTC unit.