NEWS | Dec. 14, 2020

From dreams of being an astronaut to leading U.S. Space Force recruiting operations efforts

By Master Sgt. Chance Babin Air Force Recruiting Service Public Affairs

As a young boy growing up in Upstate New York, Lt. Col. Michael Graff had dreams of becoming a NASA astronaut. Now he finds himself in a position to shoot for the stars by leading the recruiting operations efforts for the U.S. Space Force as part of Air Force Recruiting Service.

Graff was sworn into the U.S. Space Force Oct. 8, 2020, and is serving as the first Space Force Recruiting Branch chief within Air Force Recruiting Service. Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, a former AFRS commander, swore him into the nation’s newest service.

“It’s very rare for officers to be commissioned twice in a career, and given Maj. Gen. Leavitt’s background as a pioneer and pacesetter in the Air Force, I was happy that she agreed to administer the oath of office to me,” he said. “While she was commander, her energy and unit-focused headquarters support model enabled squadrons to set records and continue to fight through the initial months of the (COVID) pandemic.”

Graff now is in a position where he too can be part of a pioneering group that helps the USSF in its infancy.

“As we continue to move forward with Total Force recruiting, recruiting space professionals is an exciting part of what we do,” said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, AFRS commander. “Our recruiters are laser focused on finding the best and brightest to serve in the Air and Space Force. And having an in-house space professional like Mike Graff, who was an Air Force recruiting squadron commander, only strengthens our team.”

For Graff, his path began in the third grade with a dream to be an astronaut after visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Near the moon lander exhibit, there was a video kiosk advertising the Space Camp experience. I was immediately hooked on the notion of going as soon as possible,” Graff said. “I had to wait until fifth grade but went again in seventh grade, as well as tenth and eleventh grades, which were more oriented toward a pre-college experience.”

His experiences at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, helped set course for Graff’s future.

“While at these camps you’re completely immersed in a STEM experience. You meet people from all over the country. The staff and speakers are superb mentors and provide outstanding guidance for young people interested in STEM,” he said. “In the later times that I attended, there were classes taught by guest speakers who were actual German rocket scientists recovered after the conclusion of World War II. Listening to these people speak about astrophysics, astronomy and the development of a science they had a part in establishing was an extremely rare opportunity, and I loved it.”

At this point, Graff was hooked and his desire to be an astronaut was strong. He also knew having a military background was part of the path he would take on his pursuits.

“The staff also spoke about the opportunities in the space enterprises, and the heavy reliance on military personnel to supply astronauts was definitely something that drove my decision making,” he said. “I had made my mind up that I would enroll in Air Force ROTC as soon as I arrived at college.”

Knowing the difference it made in his life to attend Space Camp as a young student, Graff thinks it is a great opportunity for any kid interested in attending.

“I absolutely recommend Space Camp and its associated programs in aviation, robotics and cyber,” he said. “The class content and activities are designed to engage and inspire the appropriate ages of students to make sure they are challenged yet not overwhelmed.”

Graff recently participated in a video teleconference call with Space Camp officials. While he doesn’t know what relationship the Space Force and Space Camp may have, he does see the value of working together.

“It’s too soon to say whether we’ll definitely be working with Space Camp programs, but it very much makes sense to do so in my mind,” Graff said. “The Space Camp representatives were excited to see that a Space Camp graduate had gone on to lead the USSF’s recruiting operations program. It helps quite a bit to have a personal success story and be able to understand the impact these programs can have on young students while they are still in their formative years.”

When Graff was completing his high school experience, he knew he wanted to serve and planned on being part of the Air Force ROTC wherever he attended college. He chose Georgia Tech, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and upon graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

It was during his time at Georgia Tech that Graff says his dream of becoming an astronaut came to an end as the academic rigors were demanding.

“Georgia Tech is an amazing school, but you really have to earn your way to become a graduate,” he said. “The classes were tough and I probably wasn’t the most prepared student. In fact, that was a pretty humbling experience, but I applaud the people who did the humbling. While I was in ROTC, I learned that I was really enjoying what I was learning about the military and the Air Force specifically and a career in the military had grown on me considerably.” 

He said he realized it took a very special person to become an astronaut.

“The people I’ve met who have been or have gone on to become astronauts have these spectacular mindsets and viewpoints on the world around them,” he said. “Beyond being brilliant, they seem to be excellent communicators and are very talented outside their own fields of study. I would say that I arrived at a conclusion that I didn’t want to do it anymore as much as I drifted away from the concept, and after a while eligibility/suitability starts to decline.”

Although Graff didn’t become an astronaut, his first assignment in the Air Force was at a space wing, the 90th Space Wing (now the 90th Missile Wing) at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

“Being a missileer builds an enormous amount of discipline and adherence to technical orders while dealing with an extremely important weapon system,” Graff said. “There’s very little room for error in that business.”

Once he completed his missile tour, he was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he pursued a master of science degree in space systems, which is a multidisciplinary program covering a variety of science and engineering topics. 

“While civilian institutions teach similar programs, AFIT teaches military applications of these topics,” he said. “For instance, we had courses on atmospheric science and space weather, but these courses were built upon what we learned about space-based observation or communications systems, as well as how space systems mitigate effects of weather.”

After finishing his AFIT degree, Graff had two other space assignments before moving to Basic Military Training. His experience as a missileer years earlier would be an asset in his new job.

“I was assigned to Basic Military Training as a squadron director of operations. At the time, BMT was recovering from the actions of some bad actors and a culture that had become corrupted,” he said. “Missileers were welcomed to take part in the leadership cadre because of their well-known discipline and ability to make corrections as necessary, as well as report/document non-compliance and mishaps.”

For Graff, working at BMT was a deviation from previous assignments, but he would gain valuable knowledge that would help him later in his career.

“I’m not sure anyone is actually prepared to take part on that mission. There is a stressful adjustment period with a lot of noise, activity, early mornings, late nights and no guaranteed weekends,” Graff said. “BMT is definitely a huge machine, and it’s extremely well-orchestrated with little tolerance for deviation from the overall execution plan. Keeping things running smoothly is paramount, so I would look for things that would detract from running smoothly.”

While he was at BMT Graff said he learned a lot about human beings.   

“Everyone has a story as to how they ended up joining the Air Force and now the Space Force. Some are unfortunately more troubling than others,” he said. “People have different reactions under stress, some don’t do well, some really thrive, and some have some adjustment to do but they get there.” 

Graff spent a lot of his time handling the discipline issues and discharges at BMT. He struggled that he might effectively be ending someone’s dreams but realized it would not be ok to allow these people to continue serving when they may have severe issues down the road.

“At the time I felt like it was recruiting’s fault that these people were sent to BMT, but this is not the case,” he said. “At the end of my time at BMT I was very much interested in taking command of a recruiting squadron to bring my perspective and experiences upstream.”

When Graff became commander for the 362nd Recruiting Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, California, he brought with him the lessons he learned at BMT.

“I took some time to relate some of my experiences at BMT, but I also took the time to listen to them about the challenges they encounter when screening people for service,” he said. “I spent a good amount of time understanding high-interest requests for waivers to make sure we were really hiring the right people, keeping in mind those people will be under the supervision of other Airmen and Space Professionals…they have to be the right fit.”

As he learned from each of his stops, Graff took away experiences from being a recruiting commander.

“My experience as a recruiting squadron commander illustrated for me the incredible burden our recruiters carry,” he said. “No one enlists in the Air Force or Space Force without talking to a recruiter first. They are under massive pressure to find the talent we need to defend our nation, and eventually serve as our replacements. We don’t get those people without recruiters.”

Graff hopes to take his experiences as an Air Force recruiting squadron commander and apply it to recruiting for the Space Force.

“My command experience gives me a good idea of how we need to adapt to meet the specific requirements of the USSF, and I also know it’ll be frustrating for recruiters if we execute this mission incorrectly,” Graff said. “I want to be mindful of their needs to get the job done, and I don’t want to cause excess difficulty.”

Graff said his new job definitely comes with its stressors, but those should be expected in a start-up culture.

“Right now, I’m charged with building a program that employs the current AFRS organization to find officer and enlisted candidates,” Graff said. “The first challenge is ensuring that recruiters are all on the same page about what to do when someone walks in their door and wants to join the Space Force. The next biggest challenge is to build selection processes for both officer and enlisted space professionals that select the best fit for the USSF while also attracting a diverse and inclusive population.”

The USSF will celebrate its first birthday Dec. 20, 2020. It’s been a long time since a service turned one, and Graff expects a few things to occur.

 “I believe we will see a speech or presentation covering the organizational accomplishments in the last year, a strategic message for the way forward in the coming years, and I bet we’ll have some announcements establishing our culture,” Graff said.

While the new service celebrates its first birthday, Graff echoes the need for the newest branch. 

“The Space Force seemed to be established quite suddenly; however I remember being in the schoolhouse as a lieutenant 19 years ago and hearing questions in class about whether a separate branch would be established to defend space,” he said.  “Access to and reliance upon space has been achieved by private industry and in spectacular fashion. There are more spacefaring nations now, and that domain must be managed and defended to preserve the remarkable capabilities it promises. It was time for a Space Force to focus on that mission and grow as humanity fares further into it.” 

While Graff was thrilled to swear in to the Space Force, he realizes how few other space professionals are at JBSA-Randolph. 

“I definitely get a lot of second looks when I’m in OCPs at JBSA. The space blue thread and patches are hard to miss,” he said. “I end up talking with a lot of retirees at the BX who want to know more about it, and I’m happy to chat with them. It was even more unusual for me when I first spotted another space professional in the wild.”