Colorado Is Ready for Blast-Off as Home of U.S. Space Command

Colorado Is Ready for Blast-Off as Home of U.S. Space Command
Photo-illustration by Getty Images/Nataniil and Jay Vollmar

In December 2018, Vice President Mike Pence
stood before an Air Force audience at the Kennedy Space Center and delivered a major announcement:

“The United States is taking steps to ensure that American national security is as dominant in space as it is here on Earth, and to that end, it is my privilege to announce that today, President Trump will direct the Department of Defense to establish a combatant command that will oversee all our military activities in space.”

This U.S. Space Command would “integrate space capabilities across all branches of the military” and “develop the space doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures that will enable our warfighters to defend our nation in this new era,” Pence said. “A new era of American national security in space begins today.”

Eight months later, Pence made another announcement, this time at a ceremony in the White House: Space Command would soon set up headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. But Peterson would only be a temporary home for Space Command, a placeholder until a permanent site was chosen.

Lobbying for that honor started immediately.

As America’s eleventh combatant command, an organizational unit that brings together branches of the military to focus on one region, such as Africa, or one aspect of defense, such as the cyber realm, Space Command would be a plum for any locale, bringing with it the economic boost not just of well-paying government jobs, but work for nearby aerospace and construction companies. Space Command’s 1,400 jobs alone would create an economic impact of more than a billion dollars a year, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. And that estimate doesn’t include the up-front capital investments that will generate even more money for construction companies and other businesses, not to mention plenty of contracts for nearby aerospace companies. Hosting its headquarters would also add prestige to any city seeking to sell itself to young STEM enthusiasts.

With the Air Force expected to announce the permanent Space Command headquarters at the beginning of 2021, local and state elected officials, as well as business boosters, are now making a final pitch for why it should stay in Colorado.

But just where in Colorado?
click to enlarge Ready for space: Buckley's golf balls already communicate with satellites. - WWW.BUCKLEY.AF.MIL
Ready for space: Buckley's golf balls already communicate with satellites.
For over eighty years, Colorado has been home to major military assets aimed at space.

In 1938, the Army established a paved runway in east Denver where pilots could train; it was named Lowry Field after Francis Lowry, the only Colorado pilot killed in combat during World War I. Buckley Field was constructed nearby; it was dedicated to another Colorado pilot.

In 1942, as the United States entered the global war against Germany, Japan and Italy, the U.S. Department of War set up another air base in Colorado: Peterson, in Colorado Springs.

As World War II was coming to a close, it was becoming clear that the geopolitical landscape was shifting from multipolar to bipolar, and that the United States and the Soviet Union would emerge from the conflagration as premier superpowers. Competing superpowers, it turned out, as the Cold War heated up and the space race began. Colorado, with its already established bases, became a key player in this next chapter.

In 1954, Congress authorized the creation of the U.S. Air Force Academy; Colorado Springs won out over two other finalists, and the state contributed $1 million toward purchasing property for the academy in Colorado Springs. The project broke ground in 1955, and the Class of 1962 entered the completed facility in the fall of 1958.

In the late 1950s, the Glenn L. Martin Company, now known as Lockheed Martin, completed a Titan intercontinental ballistic missile plant in Waterton Canyon, southwest of Denver. At the time, the Air Force described it as the first completely integrated missile facility “in the western world, and probably the entire world,” according to Library of Congress records. The plant even had a “backyard” testing complex, where engineers could test-fire the finished missile rocket engines under controlled conditions. “These facilities played a crucial role in the development of the Titan I and Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles, the largest and most powerful weapons in the nation’s nuclear deterrent force,” the records note.

Colorado’s location made it a natural spot for such weapons infrastructure projects. “There are long travel times for any kinds of ballistic missile attacks,” says George Sowers, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who has served in high-ranking positions at both Lockheed Martin and Centennial-based United Launch Alliance. “It’s in the middle of the country, far away from ports.” It’s also not in any earthquake zones and doesn’t have to deal with hurricanes, he points out.

In 1957, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the creation of the North American Air Defense Command, at the Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Although the name was later tweaked to become the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the NORAD acronym stuck.

That same year, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik, becoming the first nation to put an artificial satellite into orbit around Earth, taking the lead in the space race. It was a tense time, with American schoolchildren taught to duck and cover underneath their desks in the event of a Soviet missile attack.

NORAD was responsible for detecting potential missile attacks on the United States and Canada.

The federal government began excavating Cheyenne Mountain to establish an underground operations center for the command deep within the mountain’s granite, designed to withstand a nuclear attack and the subsequent fallout. In 1964, the U.S. military moved in.

At the same time, the Department of Defense had been upgrading Peterson from a small airfield to a massive Air Force installation, where NORAD eventually relocated...keeping an alternate command center deep in Cheyenne Mountain just in case all hell breaks loose.

Meanwhile, near Lowry, Buckley was growing from a Colorado Air National Guard base into one of the key defense assets in Colorado. In 1969, the U.S. government began building a hyper-classified satellite communications system there; in the early 1970s, a satellite missile-warning program was added. (The giant golf balls on the edge of Aurora are weather protectors for the satellite antennas inside.) Finally, in 2000, Buckley was brought into the Air Force fold and became Buckley Air Force Base.

With the federal government investing so heavily in Colorado’s military assets, aerospace companies flocked to the Front Range.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan activated the first version of United States Space Command, a combatant command designed to coordinate space efforts among America’s various military branches. After heavy lobbying by then-U.S. Representative Ken Kramer, Space Command was located at Peterson Air Force.

Reagan’s version of Space Command was a very Cold War concept, the most significant step the U.S. had taken toward militarizing space. The U.S. still expected that it would be competing with the Soviet Union for decades to come, and space was seen as the key military frontier that had to be conquered. Space Command was established to “control all satellites, shuttle flights and future space systems dedicated to military missions,” according to a Chicago Tribune report at the time. It was also set up to house the Star Shield systems that would be a part of Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense initiative.

As it turned out, the U.S. was decades away from developing the technology necessary for the Star Wars system, and the Star Shield systems were never needed — particularly not after the Soviet Union went bankrupt and dissolved in the early ’90s.

But then, on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda attacked the United States, in a rude awakening for the U.S. federal government — specifically its intelligence community. Non-state extremist groups were suddenly the top threat to this country.

Space Command folded, and in its place, the U.S. created Northern Command, a combatant command focused on homeland defense that was based at Peterson.

But the military focus on space did not disappear over the next decade.

“You would be amazed at the role space has played in the War on Terror. We all have seen the pictures of the GPS-guided bombs that basically hit bull’s-eyes every single time. That’s a space capability,” notes Sowers. “It’s a critical element of being dominant in military terms these days.”

In recent years, the U.S. military determined that it needed to do more to keep American satellites in the skies — satellites that would help keep secure civilian and military GPS navigation, missile guidance, missile warning and many other elements of the world’s defense.

“A new era of American leadership in space has begun,” Pence said during that December 2018 speech announcing that Space Command was being brought back online.

And that’s Space Command, not Space Force.

Space Force, which was established last December, is a fighting branch of the military housed in the U.S. Air Force, similar to the way the Marines are part of the U.S. Navy. Members of this military group will receive training specifically on warfare in space. Unlike the reintroduction of Space Command, Space Force did not meet with support across the political spectrum; some Democratic politicians see it as another unnecessary military expenditure by the Trump administration.

Space Command, on the other hand, is designed to ensure coordination among the military branches, making the best of its assets in the fight for space.
click to enlarge Peterson Air Force Base is Space Command's interim headquarters. - PETERSON-SCHRIEVER GARRISON PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Peterson Air Force Base is Space Command's interim headquarters.
Peterson-Schriever Garrison Public Affairs
By early 2019, the Air Force had narrowed down its list of possible permanent sites for Space Command to six bases — four of them in Colorado.

In Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station (now home to the Alternate Command Center for NORAD and Northern Command), Schriever Air Force Base and Peterson all made the cut. So did Buckley in Aurora. The other two candidates were Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. Politicians from Aurora and Colorado Springs, like those from Alabama and California, began jockeying for position.

Then something odd happened: In May, the Trump administration announced that it had chosen Peterson as the “provisional headquarters for U.S. Space Command headquarters until a permanent headquarters location is selected and facilities are ready in approximately six years,” according to a Department of Defense announcement.

But the administration also announced that it was reopening the search process in a way that would be “comprehensive and transparent.” Instantly, many more locations became eligible to serve as the ultimate headquarters of Space Command headquarters.

While the announcement seemed to weaken Colorado’s chances of becoming the permanent home, in announcing that Peterson would remain Space Command’s headquarters for six years, the Trump administration threw a bone to Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who’s in the midst of a tough election fight.

Although Gardner’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests, his campaign has touted the administration’s Space Command announcement.

“This is a historic moment for the state of Colorado,” Gardner said in a promotional video released in May.

That historic moment also set off a space stampede, as municipalities from across the country scrambled to nominate themselves to become the next home base for Space Command. The deadline was the end of August.

About forty locations are in the running. Two Colorado cities are still in orbit.
click to enlarge Congressman Doug Lamborn with Governor Jared Polis. - LAMBORN.HOUSE.GOV
Congressman Doug Lamborn with Governor Jared Polis.
“Colorado is the heart of the nation’s national defense and intelligence space missions,” says Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat who’s not up for re-election this year. “Our state’s existing space-mission infrastructure, our established support for service members and their families, and a space-focused industry, education and technology ecosystem make Colorado the only home for U.S. Space Command.”

“Colorado has this proud military space tradition, and it has a space heritage that has continued to grow and evolve since World War II,” says Vicky Lea, director for aerospace and aviation at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “And as Colorado’s military space industry has always been incredibly robust, it’s also acted as a magnet of the large prime contractors to set up operations in Colorado. They, in turn, have attracted the smaller contractors.”

Currently, Colorado has the country’s largest aerospace industry per capita and the second-largest aerospace industry, behind California. Nine of the largest aerospace companies in the U.S., including Boeing and Raytheon, have significant operations in Colorado. At the same time, the majority of aerospace companies in Colorado are small businesses; 60 percent of them have fewer than eleven employees.

More than 500 companies and suppliers are involved in the aerospace industry in Colorado, employing about 30,000 individuals and spending over $4 billion on payroll. All told, about 200,000 people are employed in space-related jobs in Colorado.

Colorado boasts an impressive array of academic resources dealing with space. A few years ago, the Colorado School of Mines launched the country’s first academic space-resources program. The University of Colorado Boulder is home to the famous Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the world’s only research institute that’s sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto. Boulder is also home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, where staffers keep an eye on the sun to warn the country about incoming solar storms.

Elected officials in Colorado have also been working to improve the state’s space résumé.

In 2020, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill that allows military spouses with professional licenses from other states to practice in Colorado for up to three years without becoming licensed here.

Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera, who has been spearheading the state’s efforts to land Space Command in Colorado, helped improve the state’s chances by painting a more accurate picture of Colorado Springs and Aurora schools than had the federal government. “We thought that the criteria that they used to evaluate Colorado’s education system really didn’t tell the right picture,” she says. “We provided them additional information to show that the school quality around the military bases themselves was a lot more superior than they initially thought.”

click to enlarge Aurora City Councilman Dave Gruber. - COURTESY OF DAVE GRUBER
Aurora City Councilman Dave Gruber.
Courtesy of Dave Gruber
“It was huge for us,” responds Dave Gruber, an Aurora City Council rep leading Aurora’s efforts to land Space Command. “Having our academic scores low would not have helped us at all.”

Colorado’s geographic location in the center of the country is another bonus, enabling infrastructure on the ground to communicate with satellites located over both the Pacific and the Atlantic, over both Europe and Asia. It takes just one ping off a satellite for those communications to be sent from Colorado, whereas from a location on the West or East coasts, it might take two pings.

“The ability to communicate with satellites in these different orbits is one of the main reasons so many government and commercial satellite earth stations are located in our state,” Gruber says. A retired Air Force colonel who served as a senior commander at Buckley, Gruber notes that for each extra up-and-down satellite ping, there’s a little under a second of delay. While that might not seem like much time, any delay can make a difference when it comes to satellites, missiles, rockets and even large-scale international stock market transactions.

Colorado’s inland location is also a plus for the Department of Defense, which is still concerned about protecting key military infrastructure in the event of a missile attack.

But while some Colorado politicians don’t care where Space Command lands, as long as it’s in the state, others definitely have their favorite — though they’re careful not to belittle the competition.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. - COLORADOSPRINGS.GOV
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.
The most obvious benefit to locating Space Command headquarters in Colorado Springs is that it wouldn’t have to move. The previous incarnation of Space Command called Colorado Springs home for seventeen years, and the current temporary headquarters is already at Peterson. Since a municipality could only list one specific location in its application, Colorado Springs went with Peterson as the natural choice.

Over the past fifteen years, the DOD has invested $20 million in communications infrastructure connecting air bases in Colorado Springs, according to Reggie Ash, the chief defense development officer at the Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corporation, who is leading the city’s efforts to keep Space Command. If that headquarters left, all of these infrastructure projects would have to be built elsewhere.

“It would be a waste of money, a waste of resources,” says Ash, a former senior commander at Peterson.

Colorado Springs also leads the state in supporting the military, according to that city’s supporters.

“We’ve got a plethora of nonprofits that provide services for active duty and veterans,” says Mayor John Suthers. “Everything from job placement to housing assistance to mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

Private industry in Colorado Springs also supports the military, making it “the best place within the best place,” says Congressman Doug Lamborn, a Republican whose district includes the city. “The Pikes Peak region is home to more than 250 aerospace defense companies.”

Lamborn has met with the president to lobby for leaving Space Command in Colorado Springs. “He nodded thoughtfully,” Lamborn says, adding that Trump “was not willing to give away the kind of thinking that he might have.”

Colorado Springs is the “space mecca,” insists Mark Waller, an El Paso County Commissioner who operated satellites in the Air Force. “Colorado Springs — in particular, Schriever Air Force Base — is where all the satellite operations, or at least the vast majority, are done,” he says. Although the Colorado Springs application specifically listed Peterson, its proximity to Schriever would be a plus, Waller says.

And then there’s the proximity of two four-star military commanders.

“The four-star commanders right now live next door to each other,” Ash says of General Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of Northern Command and NORAD, and General James H. Dickinson, the commander of Space Command. “Even if they can’t share a meal because of COVID, they can talk to each other through a backyard fence. It creates such great synergy when the two four-stars can meet like that. It means their staffs are much more willing and motivated to work together.”

Finally, proponents note that Colorado Springs has a lot of the other kind of space.

“In Schriever and Peterson, you’ve got significant room to grow,” Suthers points out. “The city has had a cooperative relationship with the Air Force in order to make land available for whatever land is needed.”

Buckley, however, doesn’t have much elbow room in Aurora, notes Waller, in what comes as close to trash-talking as this campaign gets. “And that always creates security concerns. You don’t want to have the community growing right up to the fence line of the base, and that’s an issue we don’t have in Colorado Springs and El Paso County,” he says.

Sowers, a more neutral third party, also sees advantages to Colorado Springs. “Aurora and Colorado Springs each have an existing base, but Colorado Springs has more, and it has more of a military community and more of a workforce and more high-tech companies down there,” he says. “Aurora doesn’t have much in the way of a private-sector presence.”

But Aurora has plenty of other perks. The most obvious is Buckley’s proximity to Denver International Airport.

“This is a senior military command, and a lot of these senior officers are going to be going back and forth to the Pentagon,” says Mike Coffman, Aurora’s mayor. “We have direct flights really going anywhere out of DIA. I think that’s certainly an asset.”

Aurora is also a military town. “The largest individual employer in the city of Aurora is Buckley Air Force Base,” points out Coffman, a former Marine.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman. - AURORAGOV.ORG
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman.
Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat whose district includes Aurora, served in the 82nd Airborne Division. “We are a community that takes pride in Buckley and our military presence,” Crow says. “We have a welcoming community.”

Buckley itself is home to the Buckley Garrison, formerly known as the 460th Space Wing, which handles space-based missile warning and space surveillance and communications missions, among other tasks. Those golf balls are the U.S. military’s “eyes and ears in space,” says Sowers.

According to Crow, “A lot happens at Buckley” — but he “can only talk about some of it.” In other words, the rest is classified.

“We have significant infrastructure that is already in place that would make Space Command headquarters easy to place there,” Crow notes. There are also 260 aviation and aerospace companies in his congressional district alone.

Gruber downplays the military connection, however, pointing out that the Army recently decided to house its Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas — a city not exactly known as a military town.

“The Army wanted to be around where next-gen thinkers were, so they chose Austin. If that means they’re not necessarily looking at the most military thinkers but more the most open thinkers, then we’ve got more space professionals here than any other place in the nation, except maybe L.A.,” Gruber says.

But proponents of Aurora point to another advantage: It’s not Colorado Springs.

Back when he was working in Senator Gary Hart’s office, Bill Holen recalls, he and Hart created a group that worked on developing the concept of Space Command. Now an Arapahoe County commissioner, Holen suggests that locating the reincarnated Space Command headquarters in Aurora would make sense, since the feds wouldn’t be putting all of their eggs in one Colorado basket.

If Peterson were chosen, it would put too many essential assets, including NORAD, too close. “Either a terrorist attack or, God forbid, a nuclear attack would be very impactful and wipe out our whole ability to respond to space threats,” he says. “There’s an argument that they should keep Space Command separate from a large military conglomerate in Colorado Springs.”

Crow echoes that thought: “If there’s a cyber attack and the power goes down, certainly having Buckley be close enough to the Springs and other space assets but on a different electrical infrastructure is really important.”

If Colorado Springs and Aurora
don’t knock each other out of the running, another weakness could jinx this state’s chances.

“The only thing that could probably hurt us is that it would be better if we were more of a purple state,” says Sowers. “We’re trending blue. At the national level, there’s the political incentive, the motivation for wanting to do things for states that can help you win or lose an election.”

While the Air Force is trying to portray the selection as objective, there’s no way that politics can be fully eliminated from the process.

“At the end of the day, this is a political decision. That’s what it’s going to be, that’s what it’s going to come down to. We have seen this going back to Houston and Mission Control. That was a political decision,” says El Paso County’s Waller, referring to the Kennedy administration’s decision to put control of the manned space program in Texas, the home state of then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

How everything shakes out in November could affect where Space Command lands. Since the initiative has bipartisan support, it will survive the election — and in the meantime, the possibility of winning its headquarters could help provide political incentive.

The Air Force will notify finalists in the next month or two that they’ve made the short list, with site inspections before the final decision in January.

“I think we have the best odds,” says Sowers. “I’d like to think it’s slightly better than 50/50 just because no new money is needed to keep it here. The status quo is easier to do than change.”
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.