Peterson AFB traces its roots to the early years of World War II. Colorado Springs Army Air Base was established on 28 April 1942 at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, which had served the city since 1926. The base’s first mission was photographic reconnaissance training under the auspices of the US Army Air Forces Photo Reconnaissance Operational Training Unit, or PROTU. From May 1942 to October 1943, the PROTU organized, trained, and deployed over 20 combat-ready reconnaissance squadrons to combat theaters overseas.
On 8 August 1942, a tragedy occurred indelibly affecting the base. 1st Lt. Edward J. Peterson, Operations Officer for the 14th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron and a native of Colorado, crashed during take-off on a training mission when the left engine of his Lockheed F-4 (a reconnaissance version of the P-38 Lightning fighter) failed. A base fire department crew rescued Lt. Peterson from the burning wreckage. But he suffered severe injuries and died at a local hospital that afternoon, becoming the first Coloradan killed in a flying accident at the airfield. Consequently, on 13 December 1942, base officials changed the name of Colorado Springs Army Air Base to Peterson Army Air Base to honor the fallen Colorado airman. The base was frequently referred to as “Peterson Field,” or simply “Pete Field”.
In October 1943, the base was assigned a new mission of heavy bomber combat crew training. The 383rd Bombardment Group, equipped with the Consolidated B-24 "Liberator” heavy bomber, relocated to Peterson from Geiger Field, Washington and was the nucleus for the crew training school. 10-man B-24 crews underwent up to three months of combat training prior to assignment to combat units as replacement crews. In April 1944, the 383rd Bomb Group was inactivated and the bomber training school renamed the 214th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Combat Crew Training). In July 1944 the mission at the base changed again, this time to fighter pilot training. The 268th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Fighter Training Station), flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawks to carry out this mission with oversight by the 72nd Fighter Wing, also headquartered at Peterson. The 72nd FW oversaw six fighter training bases located throughout the midwestern United States, including Peterson Field.
In April 1945, the establishment of an Army Air Forces Instructor School at the base signaled another mission change as World War II came to a close. Following the end of the war, the Army Air Forces inactivated the base on 31 December 1945, and returned the base property to the city of Colorado Springs.
The legacy of Peterson Field and the military presence in Colorado Springs took a significant turn in September 1947, following the birth of the United States Air Force. Soon after inception, the fledgling service twice reactivated the base, from 29 September 1947 to 15 January 1948 and again from 22 September 1948 into 1949. The base served as an airfield facility for the Strategic Air Command’s Fifteenth Air Force which relocated to Colorado Springs in 1946. Peterson Field inactivated again when Headquarters, Fifteenth Air Force moved to March Air Force Base, California in 1949.
The Air Force reactivated Peterson Field again, following the January 1951 establishment of the USAF Air Defense Command at Ent Air Force Base, located seven miles west of Peterson, near downtown Colorado Springs. At the same time, the 4600th Air Base Group was activated at Ent and tasked with administrative, logistical, and facility support for Air Defense Command and other military commands located in Colorado Springs. Growth in the group’s support mission over time prompted a redesignation as the 4600th Air Base Wing in April 1958. When Ent AFB was inactivated in April 1975, the 4600th ABW relocated to Peterson Field and redesignated the 46th Aerospace Defense Wing. One year later, on 1 March 1976, Peterson Field was renamed Peterson Air Force Base, and the 46th ADW continued its operations and base support mission under the Air Defense Command.
Following inactivation of the Air Defense Command, the Strategic Air Command assumed control of the base on 1 October 1979. On 1 September 1982, the USAF activated a new major command, the Air Force Space Command, at Peterson. The 1st Space Wing was activated on 1 January 1983, and assumed Peterson AFB host unit responsibilities following the inactivation of the 46th ADW on 1 April 1983. In October 1986, the 1st Space Wing transferred Peterson AFB host unit and base operating support responsibilities to a new unit, the 3rd Space Support Wing, but retained the aerospace warning and space surveillance units and missions assigned to it since activation.
On 15 May 1992, 1st Space Wing and 3rd Space Support Wing inactivated and their personnel and equipment were transferred to the 21st Space Wing which activated on that same day at Peterson AFB. For over 25 years, the 21st SW has provided missile warning and space control to unified commanders and combat forces through a worldwide network of ground-based sensors operated by wing units. The wing also operates and supports nearby Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station; Thule Air Base, Greenland; Clear AFS, Alaska, Cape Cod AFS, Massachusetts, and Cavalier AFS, North Dakota. The 21 SW hosts and supports 53 mission partners on Peterson AFB, including the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, US Northern Command, Air Force Space Command, Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd Airlift Wing, and the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command.