California has been the place for space for nearly a century. Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory started firing rockets in 1936. Silicon Valley’s first customers were the U.S. Air Force and NASA. The Space Shuttles were built in the Mojave Desert and typically landed there. But that was then. The last shuttle mission lifted off a decade ago; low-Earth orbit (LEO) has rapidly become the domain of commercial operators such as Virgin Orbit, Blue Origin, and SpaceX ever since. And that in turn has touched off a new space race, as dozens of aspiring spaceports across the country strive to become the capital of an industry Morgan Stanley forecasts to nearly triple in size to $1 trillion annually by 2040. Investors plowed $30.1 billion into space startups in 2020 alone.
A top spaceport contender is Vandenberg Space Force Base along California’s Central Coast. The base was renamed in May, following its designation as the nascent military branch’s headquarters for rocket launches in the Western Range, which covers the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Historically, more satellites have launched at Vandenberg than from Cape Canaveral. But again, that was then, in an era of Cold War budgets. How will Vandenberg become the center of a commercial space industry fueled by a mix of public and private investments?
One might not expect this to be a priority for the Central Coast, a region of 730,000 inhabitants between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo that at first glance would appear to be the embodiment of the California Dream. But soaring housing costs and a surfeit of high-paying jobs have led more than half of middle-class residents to consider leaving the state altogether. The problem has been compounded by the impending closure of the nuclear Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the largest private employer in the area.
With no time to lose, a group of business leaders founded the Regional Economic Action Coalition (REACH) in 2019 to plot a new strategy for the Central Coast region. Together with Deloitte and local and state stakeholders, REACH hosted workshops and envisioned scenarios before narrowing in on a plan for Vandenberg Space Force Base—a $4.5 billion economic engine right in their backyard. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Vandenberg is a remarkable opportunity for us,” says REACH CEO Melissa James.
REACH arrived at a three-point plan aimed at creating nearly 2,000 new jobs per year through 2030. First, convince additional commercial operators to set up shop around Vandenberg. Second, upgrade and invest in local infrastructure. And third, make the Central Coast the new place for space through education and local identity campaigns.
“REACH and its regional partners coalesced around a big, bold vision—activating the plan can help anchor regional growth around commercial space jobs of the future,” says Deloitte & Touche LLP‘s senior manager Steve Hamilton, who led plan development with REACH and is a leader in Deloitte’s infrastructure practice.
PUTTING THE PLAN INTO ACTION
The first piece of REACH’s three-point plan is already falling into place, with regularly scheduled launches by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance for NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and commercial satellite operators, as well as a September 2021 first rocket launch by Firefly Aerospace, and a jobs-creation commitment from the aerospace 3D-printing startup Relativity Space.
Historically, Vandenberg’s advantage has been its unique geographical location, ideal for missions to polar orbits such as those that provide internet connectivity and earth observation data for climate change research and weather forecasting. The base also helps maintain space domain awareness—keeping tabs on objects in low-Earth orbit. Commercial satellite operators can benefit tremendously from Vandenberg’s unclassified data about the objects in low-Earth orbit, as well as access to the base’s talent pipeline.
“Vandenberg Space Force Base and the Central Coast can play a critical role in America’s commercial space ventures,” says Jeff Matthews, a specialist leader in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s space practice. “To build our vision of the future, we asked how we can leverage a wide range of spaceflight mission—from space traffic management to earth observation, which can better detect forest fires and enhance precision agriculture—in order to attract, retain, and expand commercial space activities in the region.”
In terms of infrastructure, a top priority for Vandenberg Space Force Base is the creation of an on-site mission development zone with facilities for manufacturing, payload processing, and even local space tourism. Plans also call for upgraded launch pads and on-base logistics—anything to make launches more efficient and cost effective.
The final and perhaps most important piece from a jobs-creation standpoint is education. California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), the creator of the original CubeSat satellite standard that’s now used widely across the commercial space industry, and UC Santa Barbara together produce 9,000 science and engineering graduates every year.
“Cal Poly has the most aerospace graduates in the entire state—many of whom leave the area due to brain drain,” James says. Creating jobs for them to fill, along with bolstering the local quality of life and competitiveness, will be crucial to convincing them to stay.
The final REACH plan was approved in June, and unlike most roadmaps, REACH had already assembled a coalition to make it a reality. In July 2020, REACH and Deloitte were joined by the Space Force, Cal Poly, and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development in signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to carry the plan forward—the only coalition of its kind among spaceports. As the home county for Vandenberg Space Force Base, the County of Santa Barbara soon joined the MOU too.
“Bringing this coalition together early and strategically has been a huge contributor to its success,” says Matthews. “Given our early results, I expect us to continue advancing regional economic development across other emerging growth sectors and industries in the Central Coast.”
When it comes to space, California’s center of gravity is shifting.