A White House decision moving U.S. Space Command to Huntsville, Ala., issued Wednesday sent shockwaves through Colorado. It prompted calls to investigate the role President Donald Trump played in pulling the command from Peterson Air Force Base in favor of a base in a state that’s home to some of his most vocal supporters.
Sources from lawmakers to military brass familiar with the decision have told The Gazette that the Pikes Peak region topped military lists, although some leaders expressed concern about housing prices here.
The decision has Colorado lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, calling for an investigation and asking President-elect Joe Biden to overturn the result.
Through an analysis of the categories the military used to pick Space Command’s new home, The Gazette compared Huntsville and Colorado Springs.
It’s not the first time Colorado Springs and Huntsville had been locked in battle for the command. When an earlier version of U.S. Space Command was first established in the early 1980s, Pentagon planners examined bids from both cities. It settled on Colorado Springs after considering factors including the city’s ability to survive a Cold War nuclear strike, said retired Air Force Col. Fred Wisely. He was one of the officers who helped in the decision.
“Back then, we were worried about submarine-launched ballistic missiles,” he explained. “The Soviet Union and other nuclear-armed states could hit Huntsville with a weapon launched from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.”
“They were very concerned about having anything located near the ocean,” Wisely said.
Colorado was out of range, offered open land, a high-tech workforce and plenty of protection, Wisely said.
In 2020, the Air Force had similar concerns, boiling down its requirements to house the command into weighted categories with a 100-point scale.
• The top category was tied to the mission, with 40 points going to the place that could best offer a qualified workforce, proximity to “mutually supporting space entities” and security entities to protect the command.
• Infrastructure accounted for 30 points, with adequate facilities, parking, roads, utilities, communications gear and structures to provide security.
• Fifteen points were offered for community support, including how the community would care for military families.
• The final 15 points were based on costs to the Air Force.
In a news release, the Air Force said Huntsville topped every category, essentially blowing the doors off the Pikes Peak region. That left locals including Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers mystified.
“That doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
Huntsville leaders, though, say the top marks were well-deserved. Here’s a look at the two communities and what they offered as a home for U.S. Space Command.
Huntsville, dubbed “Rocket City,” was home to the military’s earliest space efforts and continues to be the nation’s leading research site for missile defense.
Redstone Arsenal is home to the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, portions of the Missile Defense Agency, the Army’s missile development center and a Defense Intelligence Agency center for space and missiles. Redstone is also home to the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
While the city’s population is more than 200,600, the Department of Defense is more concerned about metropolitan statistical areas, which includes population in surrounding cities and counties. It required the Space Command be located in one of the 150 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., as defined by 2019 U.S. Census Bureau figures. Huntsville/Madison County ranking is #122 at 471,812. Colorado Springs ranks #81 at 745,791 area population.
“This ensures that eligible locations can support the expected increase in staff and their families,” the Air Force said.
The next measure is “proximity to a military base.”
Redstone Arsenal is 12 miles from Huntsville, which qualifies. There are five other military bases in Alabama, the largest being Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, more than 190 miles away from Huntsville. The other bases are also more than 100 miles away, including the National Guard training site at Fort McClellan, which was closed as an active-duty post in 1995, and Fort Rucker, a helicopter training site in Dale County.
Within an hour drive of downtown Colorado Springs are seven military bases from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora to the Pueblo Chemical Depot. That military might comes with the facilities to support nearly 45,000 troops from hospitals to military grocery stores. The area also has facilities to care for veterans, with major VA clinics in Colorado Springs and Pueblo to a new VA hospital in Aurora.
The last “screening criteria” is the “livability index” as measured by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Public Policy Institute.
Huntsville beats Colorado Springs by that measure, with an index score of 55 points. Colorado Springs score was 53. It measured: Housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement and opportunity. Huntsville scored higher on the housing (the median home sales price there is $248,700 versus Colorado Springs' $371,900), environment (“clean air and water”) and opportunity (“inclusion and possibilities”)
While the Huntsville Madison County Chamber trumpeted news of the Space Command move on its landing page, officials there declined to discuss it.
One of the reasons Huntsville was tabbed for the command was likely the nearby Cummings Research Park. It’s the second largest research park in the U.S. with more than 300 companies located on 3,800 acres employing more than 26,000. Many of those companies are tech, aerospace and military support including a division of Arrow Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Teledyne Brown and many others.
“We are thrilled to have the U.S. Space Command headquarters moving to the Huntsville area,” said Jan Hess, president of Teledyne Brown Engineering. “It is a great fit for our community, which houses Redstone Arsenal, Marshall Space Flight Center and countless government contractors. As one of the first tenants of Cummings Research Park which was established in 1962, and a provider of advanced systems and solutions for our nation’s military, we look forward to welcoming this new addition to Alabama.”
The other economic drivers in Huntsville include an under-construction $2.3 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing facility, expected to be completed this year. The company has hired 750 so far and expects to hire more than 3,200 more in coming years with a capacity to turn out 300,000 vehicles a year.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also building an Operations Support building, expected to be complete this year. The bureau states it will “relocate approximately 1,400 positions” there by the end of the year.
Colorado meanwhile has the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy, with more than 300 firms representing more than 30,000 workers. It’s a hub for satellite research, rocket manufacturing, satellite control, space-related software and satellite intelligence. Almost every military satellite is controlled by Colorado troops.
Colorado Springs should have won the biggest category in the Space Command fight, which focuses on workforce, security and proximity to space missions, said retired Brig. Gen. Marty France, who headed the training of space officers at the Air Force Academy until his retirement in 2018.
While Huntsville has a surplus of rocket expertise, the fiery launch of a satellite comprises minutes of a mission that can last decades, he explained.
What Colorado has focused on is the main mission of U.S. Space Command: controlling satellites in orbit and defending them from enemy attack while figuring out ways to disrupt enemy space systems if a war erupts.
“Not all space entities are the same,” France explained. “Some of the things NASA does is not what military space does.”
The Front Range is home to the key hubs for satellite control at Schriever and Buckley Air Force bases. It is also home to the intelligence professionals who keep an eye on everything in orbit from the telescopes and radars controlled by Peterson Air Force Base troops and Schriever’s National Space Defense Center.
Wisely said having all of that space expertise in one place has a big advantage: face-to-face communication.
“Working with people by face-to-face contact is key,” he said, explaining that some of those talks are so classified that getting people in the same room adds a layer of security compared to hackable electronic links. “Colorado Springs gives you that kind of synergy.”
The Pikes Peak region also gets top marks for infrastructure and its ability to protect satellite missions, said retired Air Force Col. Jim DeVere, who headed Peterson’s 302nd Airlift Wing. From having F-16 fighter jets a few minutes away in Aurora to thousands of heavily armed and well-trained troops right down the road at Fort Carson, any conventional threat would be quickly outmatched.
Bigger threats can be dealt with as well. In a worst-case scenario, Space Command leaders here could enter the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, which offers 25-ton blast doors on a tunnel complex below a half-mile of granite.
Redstone Arsenal has little that can compare, several sources said.
“What we have here in Colorado Springs is second to none with five military bases,” DeVere said.
Colorado does fall down in a single category: living cost. A captain with a family in Colorado Springs costs the military an additional $294 per month in housing. Across the command, that could cost the government an extra $5 million per year. The Pentagon next year is set to spend more than $2 billion per day.
But that housing cost addition can’t compare to what the military will have to spend to move the command. In recent years, the Pentagon has allocated $1.1 billion toward space-related projects here and that could just be a sliver of what recreating the facilities in Colorado Springs would cost in Huntsville, Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said.
Former Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who battled to keep the command in Colorado Springs, said the Huntsville pick doesn’t make sense.
The scores given to individual cities haven’t been released, although the Air Force is now contending that Huntsville came out on top of every category. The military needs to release how it scored Colorado Springs and Huntsville, Gardner said Friday.
“They need to open the books and let the American people decide,” he said.