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Vandenberg Air Force Base to see rise in launches, just not right away

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying a National Reconnaissance Office payload launches Oct. 8, 2015. The rocket launched at 5:49 a.m. PDT from Space Launch Complex-3 by Team Vandenberg. (Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/U.S. Air Force)

Vandenberg Air Force Base will likely see an uptick in the amount of rocket launches it hosts, just not in the immediate future.

That was one of the main messages delivered by Col. Michael Hough, the commander of the base’s 30th Space Wing, during a State of the Wing presentation hosted by the Lompoc and Santa Maria chambers of commerce Thursday afternoon at the on-base Pacific Coast Club.

Dozens of local civic and business leaders attended the event, at which Hough revealed that there is currently just one rocket launch on the base’s 2019 manifest. But, he said, that total should rise significantly in the years ahead.

“We do expect our launch schedule to grow, but in 2019, when it comes to satellite operations to put satellites into space, there is a lull right now,” Hough said. “There’s new companies coming on board and that’s going to take awhile. But, we do see a projection here in two to three years where that’s actually going to take off.”

A big focus for the 30th Space Wing this year, Hough said, will be to prepare for the arrival of a growing number of those commercial launch entities. Working with these private enterprises, he noted, differs greatly from the government-led launches that had previously comprised a large portion of the base’s launch activity.

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Among the companies Hough noted that are entering or expanding their launch operations at VAFB were SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Firefly Aerospace, Vector Launch, Omega, Relativity Space and Rocket Lab. He also confirmed that Blue Origin is currently working on developing a large launch site at the base.

“They’re more demanding — in a good way,” Hough said of the private companies, not long after comparing the bureaucracy of government launches to the often snail-like pace of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“It’s forcing us to relook at the way we do business,” he added. “If it took us a week or two weeks to do something that was relatively easy or mundane, we recognize that we’ve got to be faster. [These companies] are innovative, which causes us to be more innovative and I think we gain by that, just by proximity. … It really has been good for us at the Air Force to be associated with these commercial companies, and that’s the future. That’s not going to change, so we’ve got to be good.”

This year’s expected drop in launches follows what was a milestone 2018 for the base.

During his presentation, Hough touched on some of those highlights from last year, which included the NASA InSight Mission to Mars, which marked the first interplanetary mission to originate from the West Coast of the U.S.; the first land-based rocket booster landing on the West Coast, which was performed by SpaceX; and the final flight of a Delta II rocket vehicle.

The base’s 13 rocket launches in 2018 involved more than $5.5 billion in assets, Hough noted.

Hough also fielded questions from the audience, which spanned a wide range of topics, including the planned Space Force that has been touted as a new military branch by President Donald Trump, as well as questions about the Marshallia Ranch Golf Course, which was shut down in 2017.

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Regarding the Space Force, Hough said he didn’t yet have much information because the creation of the branch was still in development.

“Right now that’s far down the road, so I don’t know,” Hough said of the potential impact of a Space Force on VAFB. “Since we are space-based, I think if [the U.S.] went that route, we would be in that, but that’s just pure speculation.”

Although Hough didn’t have much to say about the Space Force, he would soon be able to let his fashion do the talking.

Before wrapping up the luncheon, Bob Hatch, the 30th Space Wing honorary commander and emcee of the event, surprised Hough by presenting him with a T-shirt featuring a large Space Force logo.

“I did get some additional information,” Hatch, a civilian, said before giving Hough the gift-wrapped shirt.

“We communicate with the top levels at the Air Force, so they suggested a gift for you,” Hatch added, drawing some laughter after Hough displayed the shirt for the audience.

As for the Marshallia Ranch Golf Course, Hough said that plans could soon be in place for a larger golf-based redevelopment. Marshallia Ranch was closed in large part due to the rising cost of state water that was being used to maintain the course. Before its closure, the course was losing more than $200,000 per year, Hough said.

Hough said the Air Force has since entered into an agreement with a company that builds golf courses “and they’re very interested in coming here.”

He said a contract is close to being signed and that the contractor has indicated it would like to start work this summer.

“Where we had one (course), their vision is to put in four 18-hole courses and a nine-hole course,” he said. “What we’re running into now, like a lot of things we do at Vandenberg Air Force Base, is the environmental aspect of it.”

Before wrapping up his presentation, Hough also highlighted some of the base’s partnerships with the surrounding communities, particularly Lompoc and Santa Maria, and thanked those communities for their support of the base and the men and women who make up the 30th Space Wing.

“I can’t say it enough — thank you and thank you,” Hough said.

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© 2019 Lompoc Record, Calif.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.