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More rocket launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base? New partnership wants to make it happen

The Visitor Control Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Michael Peterson)

Today, Vandenberg Air Force base serves primarily as just that: a U.S. Air Force base — albeit one with its eyes trained on the stars.

But in the not-so-distant future, the military installation near Lompoc, California, could be abuzz with even more space activity as a bustling commercial space port.

Though the base does support commercial space endeavors, its aging facility and a lack of awareness about launching from Vandenberg have left it somewhat behind in the national race to get to space.

A new partnership announced Wednesday aims to rocket the base into the future.

In a community call-out, REACH, a local economic development group, revealed what they described as a landmark partnership to build a “thriving space enterprise at Vandenberg Air Force Base.”

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The partnership brings together leadership from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Cal Poly, consulting agency Deloitte and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development in a memorandum of understanding.

Together, representatives of those groups will over the coming months develop a master plan dedicated to transforming Vandenberg into a commercial space hub.

They will explore the infrastructure needs, human capital development and governance and finance opportunities needed to “position California as a global leader in the future of the commercial space industry,” according to a news release.

“This is a really exciting and important topic,” REACH vice president of strategy Andrew Hackleman said during a briefing on the partnership Wednesday. “It’s a really big part of stepping out and attempting to make a really great future for residents on the Central Coast.”

What would a commercial space port look like?

With the partnership, Vandenberg in a couple of years could look vastly different to the base that exists today.

“This is an exciting time,” Col. Anthony Mastalir, 30th Space Wing commander at Vandenberg, said Wednesday. “Vandenberg is space country — there is no doubt about it. And we are at an inflection point.”

Imagine state-of-the-art infrastructure that draws new space enterprises to the base, where it can “plug and play” launches quickly and inexpensively — in contrast to the multi-million-dollar and time-consuming process that currently exists.

One such company invested in this outcome is Relativity, which recently signed a contract to build a launch facility at Vandenberg.

“Vandenberg is absolutely critical to our growth plans,” Relativity vice president Josh Brost said during Wednesday’s call. “We’re very excited to see the efforts of REACH really focused on developing the shared infrastructure that will ensure that we are, the entire industry, able to flourish and grow.”

Relativity is pioneering 3D-printed rockets that would greatly reduce the time and cost of building launch vehicles. Its Terran 1 medium payload launch vehicle can be built with 100 times fewer parts, 10 times faster production times and the ability to launch up to 1,250 kg to low Earth orbit, according to the company’s website.

The company recently contracted with Irridium Satellite Communications to provide services for six launches from Vandenberg in the coming years, Brost said.

If achieved, the REACH plan would make regular orbital space launches from multiple launch service providers de rigeur, meaning more eye-catching rocket launches for the public to enjoy.

Proponents say these new companies would in turn bring other aerospace-related industries such as technology, logistics and industrial manufacturing to the area, creating something of a commercial space hub centered on the Central Coast.

All of it would be fed by a steady stream of innovation and new minds from nearby universities such as Cal Poly, which has long had a partnership with Vandenberg Air Force Base.

What about Space Force, military operations?

Those efforts would co-exist and in many ways support the base’s military space operations — another thing California leaders have been hoping to expand in the future.

Vandenberg Air Force Base is currently in the running to be headquarters of U.S. Space Command, a unified combatant command of the U.S. Department of Defense in charge of space warfare.

According to a REACH news release July 30, the base has met screening criteria required to move onto the next phase of evaluation for the headquarters.

The command is provisionally headquartered at Colorado Springs, but Air Force officials have been searching for the better part of a year to determine its new home.

The command headquarters is not for the U.S. Space Force, which will be based out of the Pentagon as all other U.S. military branches are.

Having Space Command headquarters at Vandenberg Air Force Base would be a huge coup for California, state leaders say.

In a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force on Tuesday, Rep. Salud Carbajal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Kamala Harris all endorsed selecting Vandenberg as the permanent location for U.S. Space Command.

“Our Central Coast community is eager to welcome the U.S. Space Command to Vandenberg Air Force Base,” Carbajal said in a statement. “Vandenberg has garnered support for the U.S. Space Command nomination from a variety of local and state stakeholders, boasts an unparalleled talent pool, and is a prime location to host the U.S. Space Command. Nowhere is better suited for U.S. Space Command than Vandenberg Air Force Base.”

The Air Force expects to make a decision on the headquarters in 2021. The future headquarters would host approximately 1,400 military and civilian personnel, according to the release.

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© 2020 The Tribune