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Pentagon to hear NM’s pitch for Space Command

A Department of Defense delegation will visit Kirtland Air Force Base, above, in January as Albuquerque is being considered as the permanent home of U.S. Space Command.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will lead a brigade of local officials and area experts today, Monday, in a virtual battle to persuade the Pentagon to locate the new U.S. Space Command in Albuquerque.

The city last month made the short list of possible locations being evaluated by the Department of Defense, which is conducting virtual and on-site visits with representatives from six cities under consideration.

Albuquerque’s pitch will be heard in an online meeting in what could be the make-or-break opportunity to land the new command, said Sherman McCorkle, founder of the Kirtland Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and expand Kirtland Air Force Base.

“We’ve already provided detailed written answers to the DOD’s key questions,” McCorkle said last week. “Monday is our opportunity to seal the deal.”

A DOD delegation was scheduled to visit Kirtland and other installations Friday to see Albuquerque’s assets firsthand, but a DOD team member contracted COVID-19, forcing the tour’s postponement until January, McCorkle said.

The Kirtland Partnership is directly assisting in efforts to highlight the advantages New Mexico can offer the Space Command, which could bring up to 1,400 new jobs to Albuquerque, plus potential for billions in spending and contracts for local companies over time. Those assets include an array of Air Force and space-related entities at Kirtland and other locations around the state, along with major Department of Energy installations.

“Taken together, this is probably the No. 1 national security complex that the U.S. has, period,” McCorkle said. “Other bases have joint operations, but none have the kind of extensive, critical infrastructure, research-and-development capabilities, and test-and-operation centers that are located here.”

Military backdrop

Kirtland already houses six Air Force commands, including the global strike, air combat, materiel, education and training, special operations, and space system commands. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Missile Defense Agency, National Assessment Group and Joint Navigation Warfare Center also operate here.

And many of the agencies managed by those commands are directly focused on space, McCorkle said. That includes the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, which are at the forefront of developing, rapidly deploying and operating defense-related space systems.

Many others also directly contribute to space technology and management, such as the AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate, which develops laser systems, high power electromagnetics and electro-optics that are critical to space systems. That directorate also operates the Star Fire Optical Range at Kirtland – a center of excellence for space domain awareness that offers comprehensive ground-based monitoring of space assets and activity.

Capping it all off are the DOE entities, McCorkle said. That includes Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Nuclear Security Administration – a semiautonomous agency that oversees Sandia and LANL operations. And DOE’s Office of Secure Transport for nuclear weapons, components and material, plus its National Training Center, are also located here.

“There’s nowhere else in the Air Force with the concentration of science-and-technology expertise and research-and-development capabilities that we have located all in one place at Kirtland,” McCorkle said. “And it would all be located just across the street from the Space Command. It’s all right next door to rapidly address the constant requests and inquiries that the Space Command headquarters will undoubtedly ask if it’s set up here.”

‘Goldilocks’ locale

Just as important, Albuquerque is midway between critical Air Force installations in Colorado and the Air Force’s central node for testing, operations and communications at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.

That midpoint status is essential for the Space Command, which needs easy access to all facilities without having them located too close together to avoid a conglomerated military target for adversaries, McCorkle said.

“We’re the ‘Goldilocks’ location – not too close and not too far,” he said.

Albuquerque will highlight all those advantages in Monday’s virtual presentation, said city Economic Development Director Synthia Jaramillo.

“We have so many federal operations and assets in close proximity to one another,” Jaramillo said. “That really sets Albuquerque apart.”

Proximity to mutually supporting space entities accounts for 10 of the 100 points listed in the DOD’s evaluation factors. Emergency and incident response, combined with easy mobility, account for another 10 points, something Kirtland excels at after decades of security enforcement at the base.

Skilled workforce

The city team will also focus on the readily available, highly skilled workforce in New Mexico, Jaramillo said. That accounts for another 20 points in the DOD evaluation.

Nearly 36,000 people are employed in science, computer, math and engineering, or STEM, careers in the state, according to the New Mexico Partnership. The proportion of local workforce employed in science jobs is 1.7 times higher than in the U.S. overall, and employment in engineering specifically is 1.5 times higher.

That reflects New Mexico’s history as a world-class research center with two DOE labs, the AFRL, and three research universities, Jaramillo said. And all three universities have partnerships with the labs that provide hands-on STEM training for career paths.

Community impact

The command could employ 1,400 people, 800 of them civilians, according to an Air Force briefing to Congress in November.

Of the roughly 22,000 current employees at Kirtland and Sandia, about three-fourths are civilians.

“We have a huge brain trust already in place, and a pipeline of professionals from our flagship (University of New Mexico) just up the street,” McCorkle said. “UNM and our other universities have all cooperated with the DOE, the DOD and the AFRL since those entities were created.”

Albuquerque scores high on most other evaluation factors as well, such as cost of living, housing affordability, construction costs, and facility and parking space.

New Mexico still faces some stiff competition from cities under consideration in Colorado, Nebraska, Florida, Texas and Alabama. But the state has endured months of scrutiny that started with DOD evaluations of 50 locations in 26 states.

“We’re incredibly excited New Mexico has been selected as one of the final candidates,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal in an email. “Our state’s emphasis on aerospace development and exploration, history in groundbreaking science and national security work, and appetite for game-changing economic development opportunities all serve to put us in a strong position to become the home of the new Space Command.”

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