The single biggest economic godsend to hit Kern County thus far this century might not be hitting Kern County at all, in the strictest sense.
The U.S. Space Command, a unified, multi-branch extension of the Department of Defense tasked with protecting the safety and interests of America and her allies starting at 100 kilometers’ altitude, could be setting up permanent terrestrial headquarters in Palmdale.
The northern Los Angeles County community of 155,000 is 15 miles south of the Kern County line and 18 miles south of the Mojave Desert burg of Rosamond, which sends its property taxes to Bakersfield.
A U.S. Space Command headquarters in Palmdale would bring $2 billion in federal investment to the region — an infusion that might translate, in total economic impact, to $400 billion, according to Palmdale City Manager J.J. Murphy.
“All aerospace and tech companies are going to want to be close to (northeast) L.A. (County) and Kern County and (Space Command) headquarters,” Murphy said, “because it's going to be the future of what's going on in outer space…So they're going to want to be present.”
Vital to Palmdale’s application is the auspicious proximity of Kern County's Edwards Air Force Base, where they know a thing or two about slipping the surly bonds of earth. Edwards, the setting for Tom Wolfe’s test-pilot homage “The Right Stuff” and western home of the space shuttle throughout the program’s entire 30-year run, is about a half-hour north of Palmdale by automobile or 160 seconds by fighter jet.
Space Command headquarters would bring about 1,400 high-paying jobs to the region — engineers, designers, analysts, — and half of those jobs would be based out of Edwards, Murphy said.
The arrival of a prolific major industry can have a multiplier effect on job creation of perhaps 5-to-1 — for every job directly associated with that new industry, five jobs in other fields, from construction to retail, are created.
Well, says Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer, analysts are telling municipal officials to expect a 20-to-1 multiplier effect.
Such a boom would jump-start communities like Rosamond, Mojave, California City and Ridgecrest, where the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station is a huge part of the economy — and a key potential Space Command partner thanks to its isolation, security, unparalleled flying weather and practically unlimited visibility.
"Everything from the real estate industry to the logistical support to the guy flipping burgers for those guys when they go out to dinner at night" would be able to trace their jobs to the presence of Space Command, Hofbauer said. "So we’re very excited about this.”
Rosamond, population 14,000, would undoubtedly be among the first in line to see growth from the arrival of a Palmdale-based Space Command. Rosamond realtor Jen Gurule says she's already seeing positive movement from the ever-growing influence of aerospace.
“I think,” she said, “it’s going to sustain the whole Antelope Valley."
Or the Aerospace Valley, as regional cheerleaders have taken to calling it, with abundant justification. Practically every advanced aviation and satellite system on the planet, much of it classified, is developed, constructed or deconstructed within a 100-mile strip of the two counties’ easternmost deserts. That includes U.S. war machines and aviation components, fighters built for foreign allies, and commercial space tourism enterprises. Space Command? Yeah, that’s a fit.
Palmdale is home to Plant 42, a classified aircraft manufacturing facility owned by the U.S. Air Force. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a tenant there, as is Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works — a network of advanced development programs responsible, over the years, here and at its previous home in Burbank, for a number of aircraft designs, including the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which are used in the air forces of several countries.
Boeing, also established at Plant 42, operates test programs for the Air Force that include the B-1 and B-52 bombers and the F-22 and F-15SA fighters. Boeing, like Northrop Grumman, also has a presence at Edwards.
And Palmdale is a 30-minute drive to the Mojave Air & Space Port, where Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbital, Space-X and Stratolaunch have forged inroads in private commercial spaceflight.
So the marriage makes sense.
We risk counting our chickens here, of course. Palmdale is in the finals — impressive in and of itself, given the undertaking’s rigorous screening criteria — but it is only one of the hopefuls. How many hopefuls we cannot say because the Pentagon will not say, but cities in New Mexico, Florida and Colorado (Colorado Springs is the Space Command’s provisional headquarters and will remain so for about six years) are said to be also in the running. So is the northern Santa Barbara County town of Lompoc, which has the benefit of being just 9 miles south of Vandenberg Air Force Base, a place that generates more calls to UFO hotlines than Roswell.
The Space Command’s search for a new, permanent headquarters is an outgrowth of the creation of the U.S. Space Force, a separate and distinct entity envisioned since at least 1985 but given its formal establishment just last year as an independent branch of the military — the nation’s sixth.
The Space Force will be heavily involved in the U.S. Space Command, but so will the Army — Army Gen. James H. Dickinson is its newly named commander — along with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
No final decision on the location of the Space Command’s permanent headquarters is expected until sometime next year, but permit Palmdale and its neighbors to dream for the time being.
Dream and actively pursue.
Murphy said elected officials at every level, among them House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Kern County 2nd District Supervisor Zack Scrivner of Tehachapi, have come together to lobby on Palmdale's behalf.
“This would help us diversify our economy,” Scrivner said. “Building on something you already have, like aerospace, is just as important as bringing in something new.”
Especially, Scrivner said, in light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s assault on Kern County’s oil industry and the military’s recognition of the importance of renewable energy sources, something Kern also has in well-developed abundance.
At its Tuesday meeting, the Kern County Board of Supervisors gave its official endorsement to Palmdale’s candidacy for Space Command headquarters.
"The synergy here for this ... is incredible," Murphy said.
As it should be, given the stakes. Regional officials and national representatives know that Space Command isn’t just the future of military preparedness. It also may well be a signature development in the future of regional prosperity.