H.S. student immerses with AFTAC in the Outback
By Susan A. Romano, AFTAC Public Affairs
/ Published February 02, 2021
ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA -- Situated in the remote terrain of Central Australia, the 709th Technical Maintenance Squadron’s Detachment 421 is responsible for operating and sustaining an expansive seismic array to detect the detonation of nuclear bombs.
The detachment, led by Master Sergeant Jonathan Beedham, is manned by four Airmen who ensure data from the array are delivered to analysts at the Air Force Technical Applications Center on Florida’s Space Coast. As an integral part of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System and covering an area approximately 90 kilometers wide, they accomplish their mission by using 22 detectors buried 30 meters deep that capture the earth’s tectonic movements.
As 421’s detachment chief, Beedham oversees the unit’s daily operations as well as all community outreach programs. Recently, he invited Paxton Rhoads to spend a week with his maintenance crew as part of an educational work-study opportunity through a local private school in Alice Springs.
Paxton, a 10th grader at St. Philip’s College (Australians refer to high school as college), is the son of a U.S. service member stationed at a joint military organization within close proximity to Det 421 in the Northern Territory. Each year, St. Philip’s assigns a project to its students requiring them to seek out an opportunity to work with a local business in order to gain valuable insight into how a company performs its tradecraft. For the sophomore’s dad, he knew exactly where his son should go for his project.
“We live and work in a very remote location here in the Outback, and because of that, we build strong and lasting relationships with all the military personnel stationed in the region,” said Paxton’s father Master Sgt. Justin Rhoads. “When it came time for our son to complete his project, I reached out to Sergeant Beedham due to Paxton’s extreme interest in science as well as the Air Force in general.”
The Airmen assigned to Detachment 421 operate and maintain the precision seismic equipment to ensure it delivers accurate geologic data to analysts at the center’s headquarters at Patrick Space Force Base, Fla.
Prior to beginning the week-long “internship” with the detachment, Beedham sent Paxton a few documents so he could become familiar with the history of the unit, its overarching mission, and how it provides technical and scientific data to U.S. senior leaders and its allies.
He spent his days with Tech. Sgt. Devin Barrow, Tech. Sgt. Andrew Pauldine and Senior Airman Paul Wisniewski who taught him the intricacies of seismic data collection and the importance of ensuring the data stream reaches the treaty monitoring headquarters in Florida uninterrupted.
The new intern’s workdays began at 8 a.m., and after becoming familiar with the day’s agenda, he would accompany the team on each required task.
“On one of my days there, I helped prepare a solar panel that is used to supply electricity to their sites,” Paxton said. “I particularly enjoyed this experience as I got to engage both physically and mentally, cutting solar rails, measuring where the panel would be set up for optimal efficiency, and calculating the depths and dimensions of the precision equipment.”
Paxton also helped with seismic maintenance and upgrading the dirt tracks that lead to each of the arrays. He also participated in the detachment’s daily physical fitness training regimen, which included push-ups, sit-ups and a 2-mile run.
The 15-year old has his sights set on joining the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps upon graduation from St. Philip’s, hoping to become a commissioned officer in a STEM-related field.
“Physics is one of my main interests, and I really love math as well,” he said. “I enjoy learning about how concepts function and apply to real-world situations, which is why I was so excited to complete my project with Det 421 because their work focuses so heavily on math and science.”
“It was a joy to work with Paxton and he was a big help with our innovation project,” said Barrow. “Paxton is a bright young man and I hope he follows through with his plans to become an officer in the Air Force.”
“As Det 421 has been a part of the town of Alice Springs since 1955, we are happy to continue the tradition of outreach to our local community, providing perspective and hands-on experience to the future generation,” Beedham said. “We hope we can help inspire and encourage others to pursue careers in STEM as well as strengthen our longstanding relationship with our host nation, Australia.”
He added, “From a mission standpoint, our detachment is basically the first point of the chain if or when a nuclear event should happen in this region of the world. If there were a manmade event or a natural event, such as an earthquake or a lightning strike, those signals would travel through the earth and would be received by seismometers around the world. The data would then go back to a central location to be analyzed in order to provide an accurate time and location of the source. It was exciting for us to see Paxton’s grasp of our work in such a short period of time and how he was able to quickly immerse himself into the mission. He has an incredibly bright future ahead of him!”
AFTAC, the Department of Defense's sole nuclear treaty monitoring center, has nine detachments, six operating locations and more than 60 unmanned equipment locations on every continent that monitor and record natural and man-made seismic disturbances in support of the center’s long range nuclear detection mission.
The young intern’s father had a difficult time containing his pride in his son.
“Paxton is gifted,” Rhoads said. “I don’t just say that as a proud father. We push all our children to be and do their best and we support them any way we can, and Paxton has always excelled in math and science. This was a great opportunity for him. He came home each night with highlights from his day and he just loved learning about the forward-thinking Airmen and how they integrate into a larger global mission. I can’t ever say enough good things about the professionals at Detachment 421 and it’s an honor to serve alongside them here in Australia.”
Beedham’s leadership back in Florida was equally proud of the team that gave Paxton the chance to see AFTAC’s mission up close.
“I am consistently impressed with the work our Airmen are doing in Alice Springs,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Allen, 709th TMXS commander. “As important as their work is to our mission, it is equally important for our service members to give back to the local community and inspire the next generation of Airmen. It would be quite rewarding to see Paxton as a member of the Air Force team someday.”
Paxton was appreciative of the time the detachment took out of their schedule to work with him.
“I would definitely recommend Det 421 to any of my classmates who are able to participate in the outreach program,” he said. “It was very beneficial for me personally and gave me invaluable insight into how a small unit like this manages their resources, adapts to changes that arise, and conducts their vital worldwide mission for America. I really had a great experience.”