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Multiple states demand Space Command investigation

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

After losing a space race of sorts to Alabama, officials in New Mexico and other states that failed in their bid to host the U.S. Space Command are calling for an investigation into the selection process.

President Donald Trump watches with Vice President Mike Pence and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper as the flag for U.S. Space Command is unfurled as Trump announces the establishment of the command in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington in August 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Several lawmakers said the U.S. Air Force appeared to be playing politics when it chose Redstone Arsenal outside of Huntsville, Alabama, over five other cities including Albuquerque, as the location for Space Command Headquarters.

Officials in New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska all said there were better reasons to locate the command center at Air Force bases in their respective states.

“It’s no surprise the outgoing administration would make a politically-motivated decision on their way out the door,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said.

The command center has been at a provisional site at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett met with Trump at the White House earlier this week and informed him that the Air Force had chosen Colorado Springs as its top pick, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported. The paper, citing Pentagon insiders and lawmakers, said that Trump ignored the pick and instead chose Alabama.

Alabama’s Biden objections

The mayors of Colorado Springs and Albuquerque were among those who have called the choice to locate the base in Alabama politically motivated.

Seven Alabama lawmakers recently objected to President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

“You can follow the bread crumbs,” said Sherman McCorkle, the founder of the Kirtland Partnership committee, which assisted in the efforts to lure the command headquarters to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said the news reports from Colorado call into question the integrity of the entire selection process.

“Congress should immediately initiate an investigation into this decision, and I intend to bring this issue up with the incoming administration,” he said in a prepared statement. “The Air Force owes the residents of Albuquerque and other finalist cities a full and detailed accounting of how it reached its decision.”

In addition to Albuquerque, Bellevue, Nebraska; Cape Canaveral, Florida; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and San Antonio, Texas, were finalists for the Space Command location. The Air Force said this week they all remain reasonable alternatives.

Fierce competition

The Space Command, a unified combatant command that will oversee all military operations in space, will be an economic driver for its community, potentially paving a way for billions of dollars in spending for years to come. The Gazette reported that the command center currently has about 1,400 airmen and 1,000 civilians working at its provisional site.

New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham were supportive when Albuquerque entered into the competitive bidding process last spring.

Luján said New Mexico’s strong ties to the space industry, military installations, two national labs, protected airspace and a highly-qualified workforce gave Kirtland a leg up over the other sites.

McCorkle said there was also public money committed to a large-scale infrastructure project to entice the Space Command. He said the city of Albuquerque and state government have committed to $50 million to $55 million along Gibson from Interstate 25 to the base to improve traffic flow.

Mike Puelle, Keller’s chief of staff, said there is a large, empty plot of land within the Kirtland Air Force Base perimeter that was selected for the Space Command site. The land is near a large National Nuclear Security Administration facility already under construction, which could provide a qualified construction crew ready to get to work building the command center.

“We want a decision based on the merits and the space assets that will make Space Command a success,” Puelle said. “And if the decision is based on the (merits), it’ll be Albuquerque.”

The competition among potential sites was fierce.

Nebraska had raised $107 million for the Air Force to offset construction costs if it put Space Command at Offutt Air Force Base, which is in Bellevue right outside Omaha. That money included $50 million in commitments from private citizens, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Seeking transparency

Timothy J. Burke, president and CEO of the Omaha Public Power District, who helped lead Nebraska’s efforts in lobbying for Space Command, said Nebraska expects a thorough explanation of how Alabama was chosen.

“Nebraska is the right choice for U.S. Space Command, and we are eager for full transparency regarding the final review process,” he said in a statement after Alabama was announced as the command site. “We assert Nebraska exceeded criteria in all categories, and affirm we have the mission synergies and effectiveness to ensure National Security as U.S. Space Command headquarters. Our hard work continues.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said the state’s proud military heritage, unparalleled aerospace ecosystem, and quality of life for service members and their families made Colorado the logical choice to keep the headquarters. He said the provisional headquarters in Colorado Springs had been flawlessly executing its mission.

Colorado lawmakers have called on Biden to reverse the decision.

“This misguided decision would cost American taxpayers potentially billions of dollars and would be fiscally irresponsible if it is allowed to stand,” Polis said. “We pledge to work with our federal delegation to restore integrity to the process as it unfolds.”

Rocket City

Huntsville has space history of its own. It is nicknamed “Rocket City” for developing the rockets used in Apollo missions to put men on the moon, and the town is home to the biggest space museum in the world, according to the city’s website.

Local officials there praised the decision.

“Our state has long provided exceptional support for our military and their families as well as a rich and storied history when it comes to space exploration,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.

The Air Force defended the decision, saying that its criteria for evaluating the sites was related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support and costs to the Department of Defense.

The Air Force didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Journal on allegations that the decision was politically calculated.

“Huntsville compared favorably across more of these factors than any other community, providing a large, qualified workforce, quality schools, superior infrastructure capacity, and low initial and recurring costs,” the Air Force said in a statement. “Additionally, Redstone Arsenal offered a facility to support the headquarters, at no cost, while the permanent facility is being constructed.”

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