When the space shuttle Columbia journeyed across the country atop a NASA 747 in 1979 and stopped over in San Antonio for refueling on the way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, more than 200,000 people went out to greet the spacecraft.

Four decades later, the United States space mission could return to the same airfield if local leaders can convince the Department of Defense that the Space Command belongs in Military City U.S.A

On Thursday, the Air Force announced Port San Antonio was among six finalists to house the Space Command, a functional command of the Space Force, which was established in December 2019 by the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. 

It was the news San Antonio leaders had been working toward. Recognizing the potential economic boon the command could deliver, 50 cities submitted proposals in a bidding process that allowed any state with large military bases to compete for the command, which is currently based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

In addition to Peterson and Port San Antonio, the other finalists are Kirtland AFB in New Mexico, Offutt AFB in Nebraska, Patrick AFB in Florida, and Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama. The only other Texas cities in the running, both Fort Worth and Houston, were eliminated.

The selection comes less than a month after a delegation of City and economic development leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Pentagon officials and senior officers and advocate for San Antonio. 

The meetings included the chief of space operations and the principal deputy assistant secretary for Air Force Installations as well as people who know San Antonio well: Gen. Charles Q. Brown, chief of staff of the Air Force and a San Antonio native, and Shon Manasco, acting undersecretary of the Air Force and a former executive at USAA.

Supporting national defense

Gen. Juan Ayala, a retired Marine Corps officer and director of military and veteran affairs for the City of San Antonio, was the first person to get the call that the Port had made the cut. 

San Antonio had made it onto a shortlist that the delegation was expecting to include 10 contenders, not just six, and Ayala believes the D.C. visit is what caught the attention of decision-makers.

“A four-star general looked at me said, ‘He’s the only mayor from a city that’s come down to see us,’” Ayala said. “That was a great effort by our team to pull that off and I think it made a difference.”

The effort was made because landing the Space Command would be a “huge win” for San Antonio, Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report. Not only would it be a point of pride and prestige for a city so heavily involved in the nation’s defense, but it would bring the space mission to the city where 57 years earlier John F. Kennedy honored aerospace pioneers hours before he was assassinated.

It also would mean at least 1,400 well-paid jobs and opportunities for growth in the private sector as well. 

The Air Force set criteria for the Space Command that includes workforce qualifications, infrastructure requirements, community support, and development costs to the Air Force. Points are attached for scoring a city based on each set of criteria. 

“What they’re looking for is the place where the U.S. Space Command can develop and grow into this next era and I don’t think there’s a better city or a better community out there than San Antonio for that effort,” Nirenberg said. 

“For us, it’s about great jobs here for a long time. It’s about growing our profile in the spectrum of national defense, which is not only inside the wider military operations, but is also private-sector economies developing.”

In the meetings in Washington, D.C., and in a proposal submitted to the Air Force, the mayor and the city’s economic development leaders have focused on how well San Antonio and the business community serve “both the military mission and the people behind it,” including 190,000 veterans who make their home in the area, said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation

A letter to the secretary of the Air Force notes efforts by USAA, H-E-B, and Valero to support veterans and their families. “We also talked about how we live the affordable good life in San Antonio and how we have what it takes to accommodate the quality of life that we believe military families are looking for,” she said. 

Air Force cadets march along Commerce Street during the annual Veterans Day Parade in 2016. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

Space Force mission

The mission of the U.S. Space Force is to organize, train, and equip space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space. The newest branch of the military is responsible for developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces for the military’s combatant commands. 

The Space Command that San Antonio is vying for is not the Space Force, which will remain headquartered at the Pentagon. It is an organizational unit similar to those in other service branches, such as the Illinois-based Transportation Command, which manages mobility for the military.

Space Command will conduct operations in space. Thus, a community such as San Antonio that’s already invested in space and technology projects could be desirable for its home base, Saucedo-Herrera said. A number of institutions fit that bill, and one of those is the Southwest Research Institute

In the last five years, NASA has awarded the independent nonprofit research organization and 23 other San Antonio companies, universities, and organizations more than $1.3 billion in grants and contracts. In addition, the University of Texas at San Antonio is leading the city’s burgeoning cybersecurity community and is now the No. 1 cybersecurity program in the nation.

Only cities within 25 miles of a military base were eligible to bid for the Space Command, and San Antonio’s distinction of having the largest concentration of military installations in the U.S. more than checks the box. Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA) is the lead agency for one Army post, two large Air Force bases, and eight other operating locations in San Antonio.

San Antonio’s tech capabilities exist in these “behind the fences” spaces as well. The 16th Air Force, which is responsible for information warfare, intelligence gathering and analysis, and cyberwarfare, is headquartered at JBSA-Lackland – adjacent to the former Kelly AFB, where the Columbia dropped in for a visit 41 years ago. 

Port San Antonio

Closed in 2001, Kelly AFB today is known as Port San Antonio, a 1,900-acre commercial and industrial campus with over 80 tenant companies involved in aerospace, defense, global logistics, manufacturing, cybersecurity, and education.

 If the Air Force selects San Antonio for Space Command, it would be housed at the Port – a proposition that Saucedo-Herrera sees as promising for the city’s chances at winning the command over other cities. 

“The Port is going to be our silver bullet,” she said. “Everything the Air Force is trying to do right now is to be competitive across the board. They’re not just trying to be the best in what they do from a defense perspective … they’re attempting to collaborate with the private sector [and] I think that makes sense for Space Command and Space Force because it is, in essence, a startup company.”

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday reacted to the news by saying the Air Force would find no better location and encouraged the Air Force to choose San Antonio.

“Not only does the state of Texas have the resources, universities, and human capital necessary to support the Space Command, but we are also enriched by our long-standing and celebrated tradition of military service and innovation in Texas,” he stated. 

Rocket science

While many in the Air Force are well-acquainted with the city, the team that will evaluate San Antonio in the coming weeks will be made up of “rocket scientists,” Ayala said, who are experts in their fields of space exploration and site selections. But the city doesn’t have to put on any kind of front.

“We have the capability, we have the mobility, we have the force protection, the communications and bandwidth and what I think is just as important … the community support,” Ayala said. “The City of San Antonio puts their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting the military,” investing $110 million in the last decade on infrastructure projects that were priorities for JBSA.

A site visit is expected in December as the Department of the Air Force prepares to announce its selection in early 2021. 

San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez, who has been supporting the process through the chamber’s connections to the military, said he’s looking forward to competing head-on with the other five cities in the running. 

“I would say 99 percent of the people that are stationed in San Antonio love San Antonio,” he said. “The quality of life is important. The ability to find housing is real. And more and more, the military is looking to put missions in places that welcome troops and have a good quality of life.”

The Air Force has said that once a site is chosen, it will take up to six years to build the new command facilities. During that time, it will remain at Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.