Iridium Next launch in early 2017.
A new memorandum of understanding seeks to boost commercial space missions at Vandenberg Air Force Base. One such mission was the Iridium Next launch in early 2017 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon rocket. (SpaceX photo)

Touting what they dubbed a landmark agreement, state, federal and regional officials on Wednesday revealed a new pact aimed at boosting commercial space business at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The announcement centered on the memorandum of understanding signed by representatives from the State of California, the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg, Cal Poly State University, Deloitte Consulting LLP and REACH, a regional economic development group on the Central Coast.

The goal aims to create a “thriving spaceport” at the nearly 100,000-acre base, which been home to more than 1,900 rocket launches and missile tests since 1958. 

“As you all know, Vandenberg is space country,” Col. Anthony Mastalir, 30th Space Wing commander at Vandenberg, said during one of two virtual presentations Wednesday. “This is an exciting time in the space business.”

The agreement came during an especially slow launch year on the Central Coast, a number determined by the commercial and government satellites needing rides into space.

This isn’t the first time efforts have focused on boosting commercial space at Vandenberg, with one such campaign in the 1990s leading to the selection of Vandenberg as the site for most of the original Iridium satellite launches. 

Through the years, some commercial space operators have chafed at restrictions at Vandenberg, which had a long history operating under a veil of secrecy. By comparison, launch operators have found a more welcoming environment in Florida. The state has a long history as a home to civil space programs. 

“Look, I can’t predict the future, but there are a lot of indicators right now that suggest things are a little different this time around,” Mastalir said, adding that the environment is perfect for the goals of the MOU.

Mastalir noted the recent publication of the 2020 Defense Space Strategy calling for the government to work with industry to protect and modernize national security capabilities.

“That kind of strategic level guidance has not always been in place,” Mastalir said. “It’s in place now with an exclamation point.”

The partnership will lead to development of a master plan to identify what’s needed — infrastructure such as facilities and utilities, financing and more — to support both government and commercial space missions at the base.

California’s aerospace and defense industry has an economic impact of $168 billion, second only to agriculture, according to Acting Director Chris Dombrowski from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

“America’s best trained and most experienced aerospace and technology workforce lives here in California, and a greater investment in Vandenberg will ensure that we maintain and expand that leadership position,” he said. 

Relativity Space, which plans to develop a rocket using parts created on a 3-D printer, serves as the type of company the new partnership hopes to attract, a REACH representative said. 

The firm plans to develop a launch facility at Vandenberg and won the contract to launch six missions carrying Iridium Next satellites from the base.

“We’re trying to unlock that piece of innovation you’ve seen in every other industry and bring it to bear in aerospace,” said Josh Brost, vice president of business development for Relativity Space. “Vandenberg is absolutely critical to our growth plans. 

“It is the premier launch site for polar orbits across the globe, and we’re very excited to see efforts of REACH to really focus on developing the shared infrastructure that will ensure the entire industry is able to flourish and grow over the coming decade.”

The partnership also includes San Luis Obispo-based Cal Poly, which President Jeffrey Armstrong said has the largest undergraduate aerospace engineering major in the state.

“There really are only a handful of universities in the U.S. that combine the expertise in aerospace, engineering and entrepreneurship to be able to be part of an agreement like today’s,”  he added. 

Armstrong noted Cal Poly’s well-regarded role in innovative aerospace missions along with graduate-turned-astronaut Victor Glover Jr., who was recently being tapped for a mission to the International Space Station.

“Commercial- and defense-related spaceflight means new high-paying jobs, bringing diversity and sustainability to our region, a more diverse tax base, new reasons for the workforce to become well educated and for well-educated workers to settle and raise families in our area,” Armstrong said. “I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.