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Is It Too Late to Save Space?

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Huntsville Move

On its way out the door, the Trump administration announced that U.S. Space Command, long headquartered in Colorado Springs, would be ripped from its moorings and plopped down in Huntsville, Alabama.

The shock rippled through the city’s military and civilian communities. Outraged at the snub, civic leaders, media, and retired warriors questioned everything about the decision: Was the process fair? Is the data accurate? Were the risks to national security taken into account? What benefits could possibly justify the cost?

Most disturbing were allegations that petty election-year politics had poisoned what should have been a fact-driven basing decision although no official will yet go on the record to confirm these suspicions.

In a January 26, 2021, article, The Atlantic seemed to confirm those suspicions. The author quoted a “former senior defense official” saying that the Air Force had recommended Colorado Springs twice, once in 2019 and again in 2021, only to be rebuffed by President Trump.

Reggie Ash is the Defense Development Director of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC. Ash’s sources tell him that, in the fall of 2019, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and then-head of U.S. Space Command General John Raymond went to the White House to recommend Colorado Springs.

In that meeting, Trump sent the two back to the drawing board. “The president says, ‘I want you to take another look at Alabama and make sure Florida’s in your final list, too,’” says Ash.

Retired four-star generals told us that countering a basing recommendation would be highly unusual. However, remember the context: Trump was in the midst of a tough reelection campaign. Colorado’s nine electoral votes were eclipsed by Florida’s 29, the third-largest prize in the nation. He had little chance to win Colorado, but Florida was crucial. Trump even moved from Manhattan to Palm Beach to establish Florida residency right around the same time as his meeting with Esper and Raymond.

Furthermore, Florida governor Ron DeSantis had emerged as a powerful voice on the national stage. Trump would need him, and senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, if he was to carry the state.

Like Colorado, Alabama has nine electoral votes, but Sen. Richard Shelby chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and Sen. Doug Jones served on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Trump would need them, too. Why would he annoy his allies by rewarding a blue state when just adding them to the list could ensure their support?

In December, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fl, confirmed his role in the “huge, huge reversal,” telling Spectrum News 13, “Myself, the governor, our senators, a lot of our local officials started asking a lot of tough questions...Are you kidding me? Florida’s out of the running for a Space Command?”

The Air Force, having been tossed one high and tight by the administration, was forced to reboot the process. In unfamiliar waters, it flung the doors open to “self-nomination by community mayors with state governor’s endorsement.”

That’s a very low bar for consideration, and dozens of cities cleared it. By the June 2020 deadline, Colorado Springs had gone from being three of six finalists to being one of 60 applicants for U.S. Space Command.

The Chamber & EDC had been named the tip of the spear for the Springs’ effort to retain Space Command, appointed by Mayor Suthers to the task. The Air Force defined this “evaluation phase” of their do-over as “quantitative comparison of the nominees” weighing four factors: mission, capacity, support, and costs. Inexplicably, the Air Force barred the Chamber & EDC from coordinating with Peterson AFB, the candidate site.

Ash’s small team led a substantial community effort to respond. The resulting document is packed with a mind-numbing volume of single-spaced facts, figures, and acronyms. It addresses questions about the number of and distance to supporting space entities; emergency and incident response; proximity to airports, facilities, and parking; communications bandwidth and security; antiterrorism measures; energy security; and community support.

Their efforts seemed to pay off. In November 2020, the Air Force announced that Colorado Springs was again one of the finalists. Cape Canaveral, FL, had elbowed its way into the fray, along with Huntsville, AL; Albuquerque, NM; Omaha, NE; and San Antonio, TX.

The Air Force then moved into its “selection phase,” defined as a “qualitative comparison of candidates.” No details of this phase have been officially released.

In January 2021, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time, Secretary Barbara Barrett again traveled to the Oval Office. According to Ash, numerous sources, including a senior White House staffer, told him she recommended Colorado Springs, but “the President said ‘No Florida.’ Apparently, the conversation in the room was that Florida rated so low in this process, it couldn’t go to Florida. Trump then said it should go to Alabama. So they settled on Alabama.”

The unnamed defense official previously mentioned in The Atlantic confirmed this account: “This was a political decision by the White House. The service recommended Colorado, and everyone expects the new administration will reopen this.”

Other factors contribute to the doubts about the quality of the process. Although the Air Force has not made its data public, a set of PowerPoint slides ranking Colorado Springs has been leaked. Some of its findings are highly questionable.

The results rank COS in the bottom third of finalists in airport accessibility and our capacity to accommodate distinguished visitors (DVs). Note that Peterson AFB is adjacent to Colorado Springs International Airport and is the second busiest DV terminal in the nation, trailing only Andrews AFB. Trump and VP Pence both landed at COS in Air Force One and Two, respectively, for the February 2020 rally with no problems.

According to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), the Air Force omitted critical Stanford grade-level attainment data when ranking COS schools in the middle third, data that the CDE says would have placed us “well above the other finalists.”

Air Force data placed COS somewhere in the middle of the finalists for emergency response, facilities, parking, communications bandwidth, antiterrorism measures, childcare, and schools. It put us in the bottom third for energy resilience, medical support, transportation, cost of living, and housing affordability.

None of this information squares with a city that increasingly lands on lists of the best-educated, smartest, and most livable cities. WalletHub ranked COS 11th on its most educated cities list. U.S. News & World Report ranks us #4 on its “Best Places to Live,” after topping its “Most Desirable Places to Live in the U.S.” the year before. At press time, Tripadvisor even ranked COS #7 on a list of “Emerging Destinations” worldwide—whatever that is.

Can the decision be reviewed? Signals are mixed at best. In response to a letter from Congressman Lamborn, the Department of Defense Inspector General announced it would review the process to see if the decision complied with Air Force and Pentagon policy. Yet, at press time, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin supports the move to Huntsville. The announcement left the door open just a sliver, noting the decision isn't final until 2023.

Our hopes are left pinned to President Biden, who has demonstrated an eagerness to overturn the decisions of his predecessor.