Biden Reversing Trump on Space Command HQ
It's taken more than two years to undo a silly, petty decision.
WaPo columnist David Ignatius: “Biden moves to undo Trump’s political play on the Space Command.”
The aftershocks from Donald Trump’s presidency reach even to outer space, but the Biden administration is quietly moving to repair one piece of the damage that could affect national security.
The White House appears ready to reverse a Trump administration plan to relocate the U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Ala., because it fears the transfer would disrupt operations at a time when space is increasingly important to the military.
The Space Command siting decision has been a political football for the past four years. Trump made the decision on Jan. 11, 2021, five days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He had said earlier that he wouldn’t decide until he knew the 2020 election results, “to see how it turns out.” Colorado voted against him, while Alabama gave him strong support and its representatives backed his false claim he had won.
Senior military officials argued from the start for remaining in Colorado Springs, where the Space Command and its predecessors have been based for decades, and the Biden administration seems finally to be nearing the same conclusion. “We share the concerns of some military leaders about potential disruption of space operations at a critical moment for our national security,” a White House official said this week.
An initial review last year of the Huntsville decision by the Biden Defense Department’s inspector general found it “lawful” and “reasonable,” and the Government Accountability Office said last year that the Air Force had “largely followed” the normal base-location process. But in December 2022, the White House requested “a review of the review,” the official said, because of concerns that the relocation would mean a protracted delay in settling the Space Command in a new location.
“We’re doing some additional analysis; we want to make very sure we get this right,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Air and Space Association on March 7.
Trump’s treatment of the issue had a political edge all along, according to John W. Suthers (R), the mayor of Colorado Springs. He told me in an interview, confirming details of a letter he had written this month to Kendall, that Trump told him in spring 2019, when the Air Force was preparing its list of six finalists for the command headquarters, that he would make the decision “personally.”
Trump spoke with Suthers about the decision a second time in February 2020. When the mayor pitched Colorado Springs, Trump asked if he was a Republican. When Suthers answered yes, Trump asked what his prospects were of his winning Colorado. Suthers told me that when he answered “uncertain,” Trump seemed “perturbed.” Trump then declared that he would make the choice after the 2020 election. “I want to see how it turns out,” Trump explained, according to Suthers.
When Trump gathered his advisers at the White House on Jan. 11, 2021, the senior military official present was Air Force Gen. John Hyten, a former head of the Space Command. He told me in an email: “When asked, I provided my best military advice[,] which was counter to the [Air Force] recommendation of Huntsville. I recommended Colorado Springs. My rationale was that the threat, primarily China, demanded that we move as fast as possible to reach full operational capability and that we could do that in Colorado much quicker than in Alabama.”
This same recommendation was made by two other top military space officials, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, the Space Force chief; and U.S. Army Gen. James H. Dickinson, who headed the Space Command, according to the GAO report.
A late entrant in this political fracas was Florida, which argued that the Space Command should move to Patrick Space Force Base near Cape Canaveral. “What about Florida?” Trump demanded at the meeting, according to then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who was present. Miller told me that he and others warned Trump against that, citing the frequency of hurricanes and other factors. Miller said that the rejection of Florida was conveyed by his chief of staff, Kash Patel, to that state’s advocates, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Rep. Mo Brooks made one of the earliest announcements of Trump’s selection of the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. Brooks, who represents the area, was one of the leading GOP congressional apologists for the Jan. 6 riot, arguing falsely in a tweet the next day: “Evidence growing that fascist ANTIFA orchestrated Capitol attack with clever mob control tactics.”
Some observers saw Brooks’s Huntsville advocacy as crucial. “But for Mo Brooks, the Space Command would not have been at Redstone Arsenal. I want to emphasize though that it’s a team effort,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.). A Jan. 13, 2021, story in Axios noted that “two of Trump’s staunchest backers in Congress, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville and Rep. Mo Brooks, used their strong personal relationships with the president” to advocate for Huntsville.
Trump emphatically took personal political credit for steering the Space Command toward a friendly state. “I single-handedly said, ‘Let’s go to Alabama,’” he told the hosts of “Rick and Bubba,” a Birmingham-based radio show. “They wanted it. I said, ‘Let’s go to Alabama.’ I love Alabama.’”
Despite the bizarre personal politics of all this, Huntsville isn’t a bizarre choice. As an AP report from August 2018 notes, Rocket City has a long history:
The birthplace of NASA’s rockets lies in the land of cotton, hundreds of miles from Cape Canaveral’s launch pads.
From the first U.S. satellites and astronauts, to the Apollo moon shots, to the space shuttles and now NASA’s still-in-development Space Launch System, rocket history inundates Huntsville, Alabama.
Huntsville’s nickname, Rocket City, is thanks largely to Wernher von Braun and his team of fellow German-born rocketeers who settled here in the 1950s. The city has long been home to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. But now it’s attracting new generations of engineers, scientists and techies. Tourists come for the history. Kids and adults come to learn at Space Camp.
It was von Braun, Marshall’s first director, who wanted to showcase Huntsville’s rocket development and testing. Thus was born the U.S. Space and Rocket Center , an official NASA tourist spot that houses one of only three remaining Saturn V moon rockets, this one a National Historic Landmark.
Von Braun planted the seed for Space Camp as well. Why band camp, football camp and cheerleading camp, but no science camp, he wondered. He didn’t live long enough to see Space Camp open in 1982 at the rocket center, but since then, 800,000 youngsters and grown-up space fans have attended daylong, weekend or weeklong sessions with space, robotics and aviation themes.
But Hunstville isn’t just about history. Ongoing research aims to return astronauts to the moon and on to Mars. “We’re looking to the future, really looking to travel in space, trying to figure out the problems of living and working in space,” Barnhart said.
“You look at all this whole great big Saturn V, and the only part that Houston was responsible for was, I don’t know. This little part right here,” Hickam said, laughing, as he pointed to the capsule at the tip of the 363-foot-long rocket, stretching horizontally in its massive exhibit hall.
That said, it makes no sense to move Space Command away from Colorado Springs, where its previous incarnations were headquartered and so much infrastructure already exists. Further, the fact that Northern Command and the Air Force Academy are right there provides significant synergies.
Given that the uniformed leadership was unanimous on the matter, with the Trump-appointed civilian Secretary of the Air Force really the only voice in the other direction, I’m surprised it’s taken President Biden so long to make the obvious decision.