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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 16th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 28

Local business interests and government entities are eyeing Vandenberg Air Force Base for future development and increased satellite launches


Rocket engines and old stories of spaceflight take up vast stretches of undulating terrain just above sea level. 

A Delta II rocket fires off from Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Unite Launch Alliance mission deposited NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 in September of 2018.

Northwest of Lompoc, Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) encompasses 110,000 acres, more than 15 times the size of the town right next to it. The base is rich in aerospace expertise and extra land, and broad coalition of state, county, and local leaders are trying to figure out how to boost economic growth by allowing private companies closer access to launch pads and facilities that can fire a rocket into space.

The newest story that leaders and economic development types are trying to peg to this land is that it should be a spaceport of the future. They told the Sun stories about the potential of regular rocket launches—mostly satellites, perhaps 20, 30, or more every year. 

That depends, of course, on the satellite business: How many satellites companies are willing to buy and where in the sky they want them. It also depends on potential big buyers—like Google or Amazon—that could change the face of the industry. 

It’s a big story. 

And critics say that it’s a whopper that’s been told in the past: Hopes for economic development on the base mix in with those old tales of spaceflight, and efforts meant to spur growth over the last few decades were never realized.

Space force

Air Force Space Command has been responsible for keeping the country’s space capabilities current. Thousands of personnel are scattered over a handful of bases, including Vandenberg, flying satellites and testing ballistic missiles. 

Col. Anthony J. Mastalir (center) receives command of Vandenberg Air Force Base during a ceremony on July 12.

President Donald Trump’s plans to grow America’s space options put into action a separate move to re-establish the U.S. Space Command, a body with extra resources and influence dissolved by President George W. Bush in 2002. The return of U.S. Space Command would come with modest additions in personnel, numbering in the hundreds, about $83 million spread over the bases where those forces are stationed, and a renewed focus to maintain an advantage not just in the skies, but above them.

That’s what Col. Anthony Mastalir came to do at Vandenberg. One of the things, anyway. Sitting in his office, the new base commander said his July 2019 appointment to head up the 30th Space Wing came with plans to improve infrastructure at the base.

“I’m not in charge of expanding the number of launches,” Mastalir said. “But I need to be ready so that when the number of launches is ready to expand, range is ready to support.”

He talked about a future that includes huge, self-healing networks of small satellites that could sustain damage from an attack or from the increasing mass of space junk cluttering orbit. The satellite conversation isn’t just about national security—it’s also about the tech industry. At its center is an evolving concept of what satellites can and should do, as well as the cheap and accessible internet service that an interconnected mass of satellites could offer. 

“You have companies that are planning massive lower Earth orbit constellations,” he said. “Thousands of satellites.”

That could mean a dramatic increase in rocket launches, and more revenue for companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, which have been refining reusable rocket technology in an effort to drop launch costs by millions of dollars.

“Quite frankly, there’s an opportunity here in California to capitalize on what lies ahead in terms of more economic growth and more jobs,” he said. “So I think the state has an interest in participating.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launches from Vandenberg in May of 2018.

Mastalir said he’s already had multiple discussion with Lenny Mendonca, Chief Economic Adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California boasts the largest share, more than 20 percent, of the national aerospace business. But it has dwindled over the years. The state has lost business to tax friendly competitors like Texas. SpaceX is developing launch capabilities in Boca Chica off coastal Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.

Leaders at virtually every level of government—local, county, state, the governor’s office, and U.S. Congress—want to bolster California as a competitor in the aerospace business. Now, Mastalir said, there’s interest at the highest levels of the military and national government to expand Vandenberg’s mission and responsibilities.

“The federal government, the Department of Defense, is fully on board with where we’re headed across the space enterprise,” Mastalir said. “There is a focus on what we need to do to achieve and maintain space superiority like I have not seen in the 25 years that I have been wearing this uniform.”

Increasing Vandenberg’s attractiveness to space launch companies could be a start toward getting more business to the area. And Mastalir said building range capacity—the ability to launch rockets more often—is a top priority of Gen. John Raymond’s, the recent U.S. Senate-confirmed head of U.S. Space Command.

Mastalir said he’s looking at improving the operational launch pads that Vandenberg has and bringing some currently unused launch pads into service. He said the base has more than 20 launch sites with just four of them in use. The biggest rockets take off from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 6, which has long been leased out to the United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Elon Musk’s SpaceX leases out Space Launch Complex 4.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launches in March of 2018 from Space Launch Complex 4, the facility it leases at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Mastalir talked about adding connectivity so that large amounts of data on base can be shared in a moment, cloud storage that will fully modernize their capabilities. But the first step is modernizing those launch facilities, and industry analysts like Marco Caceres with Teal Group Corporation expect them to get a lot more use in the coming years.

“Everything I’ve seen developing over the past three years points in the direction of many, many more launches and many more individual satellites going up,” Teal Senior Space Analyst Caceres said.

That includes all sizes, whether they weigh thousands of tons or just a few pounds. Caceres projected that 10,000 satellites could go up in the next five or 10 years. That would more than double the current number of satellites already in orbit.

“Other states are working on space ports, commercial spaceports, so it may be that Vandenberg doesn’t get as many launches as it may be thinking,” he said.

He mentioned Alaska, New Mexico, and Virginia’s Wallups Island as candidates for more space launch investment. But Vandenberg remains the only launch site in the nation able to send payloads to polar orbit, the premier location for military hardware.

“No question about it. Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral will always have the upper edge, but the question is capacity,” Caceres said. “For many of the satellite companies, it’s more important to get their satellite up as quickly as possible than it is to get a lower launch cost.”

Local growth

The industry has long anticipated more launches of smaller satellites, only for those plans never to materialize.

A Delta IV rocket from the United Launch Alliance takes off from Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

John Pike has been an industry observer and defense analyst for decades, drawing up comprehensive reports on defense topics like Vandenberg and Space Launch Complex 6 as the founder and director globalsecurity.org.

He said the idea to launch larger numbers of small satellites isn’t new, and there have been numerous programs with that goal.

“There are too many to keep track of, and I think they’re all smokin’ dope,” Pike said. “People have been talking about this for 30 years.”

Everyone involved in those programs want to see jobs skyrocket and the economy grow, but the path forward and how to get the many political and legal threads lined up remains foggy.

“It’ll be hopelessly bureaucratized,” Pike said. “There’s a whole thicket of regulatory barriers that will have to be surmounted, but there are people who get paid to do that.”

The space industry, according to accounting firm PwC, hit $760 billion in revenue last year, a jump over the previous record high of $729 billion in 2014. Analysts project even more dramatic increases as companies get better at launching into space.

Though optimism is high, concern remains for what could happen if a new president is elected to office in 2020 and how that would change funding plans for Vandenberg. If that happens, some worry that plans for the future could unravel.

And for Lompoc, it wouldn’t be the first time.

When the Challenger Shuttle disintegrated shortly after its takeoff from Cape Canaveral in 1986, so did many of the jobs it created at Vandenberg, where a 3-mile long runway was awaiting the Challenger’s return to Earth. 

Janelle Osborne wasn’t mayor of Lompoc then; she was still in Texas. But by the time she moved to the Central Coast, she and her husband found a house built during one of the final housing booms of the ’80s. They bought it cheap, at what they called a “Texas price.”

In her third year as mayor, Osborne wants some of that aerospace business that left with the shuttle program to return.

“A lot of manufacturing that was in town began to fold because they weren’t doing it in town anymore,” she said.

Osborne’s hometown in Texas is Boca Chica, the coastal town where SpaceX has invested in a launch and test site. She knows the benefits that big operations like that can have for a nearby town.

Though the City Council hasn’t discussed it extensively or formally, Osborne said the city is eager to cooperate with Vandenberg. 

Lompoc has been approached in the past by rocket makers interested in storing hardware, only to find that the city didn’t have the right kind of space. But Lompoc does have housing lots and is eager to bring in developers who can put up new homes for the well-paid engineers who might come with a boom at the base.

“We’re looking to be very supportive,” she said.

It’s a potential shot of cash the city needs to fund existing parks and recreation programs, as well as the police and fire departments.

Osborne said she’s not worried that aerospace jobs will come and go, because this time the development would be driven by private business, not spending that could be canceled if Trump doesn’t get re-elected.

“The benefit this time around is that this is truly commercial and that this has nothing to do with the current administration,” Osborne said.

What’s Next

If the idea to develop the aerospace business at Vandenberg had a leader, it would be the Hourglass Project. His Chief Exective Officer Melissa James and Vice President of Strategy Andrew Hackleman, who run the nonprofit, work out of the Cal Poly Hot House stashed above the Ross department store in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Launch Complex 6 is the launch site of the United Launch Alliance, a collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

They’ve helped coordinate and connect various decision makers in an effort to get all necessary parties on the same page.

“It’s about having the political will and getting the right players together to address a common challenge,” James said.

But the plan remains in its infancy.

Pike, the unconvinced defense analyst wondered, “Who’s going to pay for it?”

The economic development arm of the governor’s office hasn’t drawn up cost projections but anticipates spending to be in the hundreds of millions in facilities on or near the base. Where that money will come from has yet to be decided. Questions remain about what kind of budget the defense department will invest in space capability and what a U.S. Space Force would mean for Vandenberg’s wallet.

Lompoc’s a willing partner but won’t bring any money to the project. Osborne said she expects the City Council to help in any way that it can, outside of offering tax incentives.

“We would need to see results before we thought a tax incentive was something we could support,” Osborne said. “Until were able to support our parks and our public safety and our libraries.”

Col. Mastalir said he can’t build out the base himself, but he can prepare his launch facilities for more use.

Some money for that could come from the congressional budget, perhaps some from the state, maybe some from private space, but all involved say it’s too soon to have concrete answers.

It remains a work in progress, but the business forces that dictate demand for satellites appear on the verge of catapulting into the stratosphere.

If that happens, the coast might get a piece of the action. 

Reach Staff Writer William D’Urso at wdurso@santamariasun.com.

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