AFRL’s Starfire Optical Range holds transfer of leadership ceremony

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFRL) – The Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate’s Space Electro-Optics Division held a transfer of leadership ceremony here July16. In an outdoor setting at the Terry S. Duncan Space Technology and Research Laboratory, with the division’s Starfire Optical Range telescopes in the background, Lt. Col. Steven Mawhorter relinquished leadership of the Starfire Optical Range Branch to Lt. Col. Alexander Gruenther.

“As leaders we are trusted for a short period of time before passing the keys on to the next person,” said division chief, Col. Peter Norton. “Lt. Col. Mawhorter has proven his leadership time and again in the one year he spent with us.”

Norton explained Mawhorter superbly led the Starfire Optical Range classified mission and other operations during the difficult time of the COVID pandemic, and that one of his signature accomplishments was ensuring the successful recoating of the 3.5-meter (11.5 feet) telescope’s mirror.

Using advanced adaptive optics, a revolutionary technology perfected at AFRL, the premier telescope can distinguish basketball-sized objects at a distance of 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) into space.

“My time at the SOR was a great way to round out a career in space electro-optics,” Mawhorter said. “I started as a second lieutenant at the SOR’s sister telescope site on Maui. This assignment was a dream come true as I returned to the lab, now at a senior level. I’m proud of our team and our accomplishments during the past year.”

Following Mawhorter’s remarks, the official transfer of leadership took place with Norton passing a telescope, as a symbol of the unit flag, to Gruenther.

“The opportunity to lead a team only comes a few times in a career,” said Norton, as he introduced incoming leader Gruenther, his wife Britton and their 2-year old son. “All of Lt. Col. Gruenther’s previous experiences and performance record have rightly led to this moment. I am delighted to welcome him as the SOR’s next branch chief.”

“This is an exciting, super honor and I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Gruenther said. “I consider myself extremely lucky to be taking over a well-oiled machine and great team that Lt. Col. Steve Mawhorter has so ably led.”

Gruenther who is joining the SOR from the National Reconnaissance Office thanked his family and one of his mentors in attendance, and acknowledged the division members who took part in the ceremony.

“Now to the men and women at Starfire,” Gruenther said. “Your dedicated work in laser guide stars, space surveillance and cutting edge research keeps Starfire Optical Range a premier research facility supporting the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. You are what makes this site a world-class facility. I promise you I will give you my best every day, and I know you will do the same.”

image of presentation

Air Force Col. Peter Norton, AFRL Space Electro-Optics Division chief, presents Space Force Lt. Col. Alexander Gruenther a telescope at a transfer of leadership ceremony July 16, held at the Starfire Optical Range located on Kirtland AFB, N.M. Gruenther assumed leadership of the division’s Starfire Optical Range Branch. 2nd Lt. Matthew McVey, center, served as proffer for the ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Thomas Dickinson)

image of ceremony

Col. Peter Norton, left, AFRL Space Electro-Optics Division chief presents Lt. Col. Steven Mawhorter a remembrance of the Starfire Optical Range at a transfer of leadership ceremony held at the SOR July 16. Mawhorter departed the SOR, located on Kirtland AFB, N.M. to take a position as the Space Warfighting Modeling and Simulation lead for the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Thomas Dickinson)