WASHINGTON • A U.S. Senate hearing this week gave a glimpse of the kind of activity planned for a new U.S. Space Command, for which Colorado is a lead contender.
The Space Command would be the headquarters for directing operations of a new Space Force proposed by the Trump administration. Although the proposed Space Force is planned as a new branch of the military, it will play a pivotal role in commercial development of space for the U.S. economy, according to expert witnesses.
The six sites the Air Force announced Tuesday that it is considering for a permanent Space Command are Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and Schriever Air Force Base, near Colorado Springs, and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs; Redstone Arsenal in Alabama; and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The temporary home for the Space Command is Colorado Springs.
The Space Force “will encourage the kind of growth we talked about,” said Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of U.S. Space Command.
He was referring to economic forecasts like a November report from financial firm Morgan Stanley that estimates the global space industry could generate revenue of at least $1.1 trillion by 2040, up from $350 billion a year now.
Thompson said the estimates might be conservative because the technology for satellites and a possible return to the moon is developing quickly, sometimes overturning earlier predictions about commercialization of space.
“We see companies coming forward every day that are going to disrupt those business models,” Thompson told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s subcommittee on aviation and space.
The most recent major development in space commercialization occurred last Thursday, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled his plan for a space vehicle designed to land on the moon. He said it would be a first step toward building human colonies in space.
However, the commercial plans also face threats from U.S. adversaries, thereby creating a need for security before the economy can profit from them, Thompson said.
“Those can only benefit from a robust U.S. military presence in space,” he said.
Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, expressed similar sentiments in a statement Tuesday.
“Colorado is uniquely positioned to support the new Space Command headquarters, and it is my hope that the continued expansion of military space operations will ensure the United States maintains its position as the global leader in space,” he said.
The Space Command operated from 1985 to 2002 out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, but was de-emphasized as a space operations headquarters when the U.S. military shifted focus to the war on terror. The 2019 Defense Department budget authorizes the reopening and expansion of Space Command.
The command would need to be expanded if a Trump administration proposal for a U.S. Space Force materializes. The Space Force has been proposed as either a new sixth branch of the armed forces or as a new branch of the Air Force, much the way the Marines report to the Secretary of the Navy. However the proposed war-fighting and space security branch is set up, it must first be approved by Congress.
Along with performing independent space operations, the Space Force would support military land, air, naval and cyber forces. It also would protect private commercial satellite navigation, satellite television and satellite imagery.
Other security needs would arise for planned space tourism and mining of precious minerals in asteroids.
President Donald Trump wants the Space Force to begin operating in 2020 and eventually grow to 15,000 personnel. Many of them would be based at a new Space Command.
Jim Bridenstine, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said some threats come from other satellites, space debris and natural objects in space big enough to cause damage, but too small to be viewed with current technology.
He mentioned the example of the 2009 collision that destroyed the U.S. Iridium 33 and Russian Kosmos-2251 satellites. The accident also sent more debris flying through space in a low-earth orbit, creating additional risks for other satellites.
“If commercial industry is going to continue to make those investments ... they need to have assurances that those investments will be safe,” Bridenstine said.
Under current launch schedules, “That type of collision will occur, on average, every five to nine years,” he said.
He agreed a Space Force could reduce the risks with better monitoring of orbiting objects.
“We need more data and better data,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on aviation and space, said he agreed it is time for a new Space Force.
“It is long past time for the United States to act,” Cruz said.