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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque made the short list of cities that the U.S. Air Force is considering to permanently locate the new U.S. Space Command, pitting the city against five other competitors, city and state officials announced Thursday afternoon.
Albuquerque was one of 31 cities the U.S. Department of Defense said last summer it would consider in an initial round of screening. If the new command were to locate here, it would bring more than 1,000 new jobs to the city, plus the potential for billions in spending and contracts for local companies over time.
The other contenders are Air Force bases in Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, Alabama and Texas. A final decision is expected in January.
Given the state’s extensive military and space-related assets, government officials believe Albuquerque stands a fighting chance to land the Space Command.
“Our state’s strong and growing role in space exploration, space science and national security related space matters puts it in a strong position to become the home of the new Space Command,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Department of Defense in the weeks and months ahead.”
The Air Force officially launched a competition in May to choose a new permanent home for the command, and in June, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Lujan Grisham jointly submitted a letter proposing Albuquerque as the new location. That led to Albuquerque getting on the initial list of 31 prospective cities. All of them then submitted detailed proposals describing the assets and benefits they could offer.
The Air Force evaluated those proposals since September, and on Thursday, Assistant Air Force Secretary John Henderson sent a letter to Keller congratulating the city and state for being designated as a “candidate location” for consideration along with five other locations that will now move to the next step in the selection process.
“During the next phase, the Department of the Air Force will conduct both virtual and in person visits with candidate locations,” Henderson said in the letter. “These visits will gather information and validate data used to develop a qualitative assessment of each candidate’s ability to host U.S. Spacecom headquarters.”
The Air Force expects to announce its “preferred” location in January, along with other “reasonable alternative locations,” Henderson added.
The city said in a news release that the DOD will conduct both virtual and COVID-19-safe, in-person site surveys.
But given the raging pandemic, direct visits by DOD personnel are not guaranteed, and if site tours end up limited to online presentations, it could make it harder for Albuquerque to showcase its assets, said Sherman McCorkle, founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and expand Kirtland Air Force Base.
The organization is directly helping in government efforts to land the Space Command.
“Kirtland and Albuquerque would probably benefit more than the other candidate cities from a direct onsite visit because our proposal to become the Space Command headquarters seems dead on in terms of what the Air Force has asked for, and you need to see that in person,” McCorkle told the Journal. “Reading a proposal about our assets is so much different than standing on a street corner and actually seeing what it looks like, and I don’t know how you can capture that virtually.”
Among Albuquerque’s biggest draws are Kirtland’s extensive military infrastructure and high-tech, space-related research and development laboratories, including state-of-the-art facilities for the DOD’s Space Vehicles Directorate and two other space agencies, McCorkle said. And many of those military entities operate under “black,” or unpublished, budgets, which would align particularly well with the Space Command.
“They would synergize very well with each other,” McCorkle said.
Kirtland’s location alongside the Albuquerque International Sunport is another major plus. And the presence here of both Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory offers unique benefits, including world class technology infrastructure and thousands of highly-trained scientists.
“We’re already very rich in the type of manpower and expertise that the Space Command is seeking,” McCorkle said. “But it’s the value of having someone actually walk through those sites and tour the installations that is so important.”
New Mexico faces some stiff competitors. They are:
n Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, which has a “home port” advantage as the Space Command’s current temporary headquarters.
n Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which previously housed the strategic Air Force Command headquarters.
n Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral in Florida, which has 50 years of infrastructure and space-related history.
n Port San Antonio, which at one time housed three Air Force bases in and around it.
n Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama, which also has extensive military infrastructure and a strong congressional delegation to lobby for the Space Command.
“You can be the best-qualified candidate and still lose the competition,” McCorkle said. “The game has changed now from softball to hardball.”
Even if Albuquerque isn’t selected, the city and state scored a huge win for New Mexico’s emerging space industry by landing on the short list, said Casey DeRaad, CEO for industry advocacy organization NewSpace NM.
“We’re getting more and more recognition of being a center of excellence for space, and win or lose, it’s a great opportunity to highlight what we have going on here,” DeRaad told the Journal. “I believe we do have a real chance, but to make it from the top 31 to the top six list of candidates demonstrates we are a leader in the new space age.”
Keller said the city has a “good shot” to land the Space Command. And with the short-listing coming on the heels of the Orion Group aerospace company’s recent announcement about establishing a major manufacturing center near the Sunport, the city and state are building a national reputation as an emerging space industry powerhouse.
“With this opportunity and the exciting news around the Orion Group, we are on track to become home base for space,” Keller said in a statement.