Although Joel Atienza has had a lifelong interest in the cosmos, he never could have guessed he would become one of the first members of the United States Space Force.
Atienza, a 2010 graduate of Oak Harbor High School and former bagger at the Navy Exchange, was recently selected to become a “guardian” in the newest branch of the armed forces.
The Air Force Space Command was re-designated as the Space Force, adding a new branch to the military on Dec. 20, 2019.
Its mission is to protect the nation’s interests in space as the realm becomes contested with more countries vying for access and domain in the heavens.
The new military branch will be responsible for “developing Guardians, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands,” according to its website.
Those selected for the Space Force are called guardians.
Although its creation may have come as a surprise, Atienza stressed that protecting space is essential to protecting the tools society uses in day-to-day life.
“Not too many people realize the technology that uses space is in their hands in their cell phones,” Atienza said. “The space domain touches our lives — society’s lives — everything from GPS to ATMs.”
He explained that the Space Force protects and acquires satellites and will play a role in developing technology for future generations.
Before he was selected for the Space Force, Atienza worked in a similar role in the Air Force Space Program. He was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force after graduating with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington in 2014. He later completed a master’s degree in the same subject at Syracuse University while he was stationed in Rome, New York.
He jumped at the chance to join the Space Force and was thrilled when he learned he was selected.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in space, to be able to scale and explore the universe,” Atienza said. “It’s just been a passion since I was young.”
He works as a junior acquisitions officer and is stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Space Force leadership is in the process of changing the names of several bases to reflect the guardians’ presence.
Although there are no manned expeditions planned yet, Atienza said that they are a future possibility.
“It’s been my dream to go up in space and go to the moon, go to Mars, but we’ll see how things go, technologically,” he said. “But things are looking good. Right now, my goal is to keep working in space and help make that future a reality.”
His parents were surprised when their son told them the news about his new job.
“I was quite surprised because it’s a very new branch of the military and there were only a few selected,” his mother, Elizabeth Atienza, said.“He made it, so I’m quite proud of that.”
When asked if he had any advice for this year’s graduates or Space Force hopefuls, Atienza borrowed a line from the guardians.
“Remember, ‘The sky is not the limit.’”