4 key reasons Alabama’s ‘Rocket City’ is best pick for Space Command HQ

4 key reasons Alabama’s ‘Rocket City’ is best pick for Space Command HQ
Huntsville's longtime role in the U.S. space program and defense industry makes it a logical contender for the U.S. Space Command headquarters. (contributed)

Huntsville is in the running to be the headquarters of the new U.S. Space Command, a move that is a natural fit for Alabama’s Rocket City and its longtime support of space and defense programs.

Goals of the new command are to better organize and advance the military’s extensive operations in space and to seek more effective ways to protect U.S. assets such as satellites that are crucial for communications, navigation and surveillance.

“When you think of space, you think of Huntsville, the birthplace of the rockets that put man on the moon and a huge hub for ongoing innovation and space exploration,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “At the same time, the city is deeply rooted and invested in the security of our nation, and for decades has been at the forefront of safeguarding U.S. interests around the world.

“There could not be a better or more fitting location to lead the important mission of the U.S. Space Command than Huntsville, Alabama,” Canfield said.

Five other sites – four in Colorado and one in California – also are finalists for the headquarters, but here are four key reasons why Huntsville tops them all.

Huntsville served as the cradle of the U.S. rocket development program in the 1950s, and it remains a center for the nation’s space and missile defense programs. (contributed)

No. 1: Proximity to key infrastructure

Huntsville is home to Redstone Arsenal, which has been the center of the U.S. Army’s missile and rocket programs for more than 50 years.

The nation’s first ballistic missile was developed at Redstone, and it is the current site of a number of military organizations, including the Army’s Aviation and Missile Command, Space and Missile Defense Command, and the Missile Defense Agency.

Also at Redstone is NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which designed the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo program moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s.

Marshall has continued to lead the way in human space exploration, developing new rocket engines and tanks for the Space Shuttle fleet, building sections of the International Space Station and now managing the science work done by astronauts onboard the ISS.

NASA’s Space Launch System, an advanced launch vehicle that will provide the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit, is designed, developed and managed by Marshall.

NASA has turned to Marshall to lead its Human Landing System Program for the return to the Moon.

A rocket engine for the Orion capsule is test fired at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall is leading development of the SLS rocket that will return U.S. astronauts to the Moon and possibly transport them to Mars. (NASA Marshall)

No. 2: Presence of major players

With such a rich history of success, Huntsville has been an attractive location for defense contractors and other private firms doing business with the government.

Boeing, for example, has more than 3,000 employees in the Huntsville area, working in a diverse range of its global businesses.

The company is the prime contractor on the core stage of NASA’s SLS, and local employees also are heavily involved in the development of rockets, missiles and weapons systems.

Other major industry players have a significant presence in the North Alabama region too, and their ranks continue to grow.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are all involved in building the next-generation rockets that will drive future space travel, and breakthrough technologies are also happening elsewhere.

Just last month, Lockheed Martin announced plans to make North Alabama its flagship location for work on hypersonics programs, with a new production facility and almost 275 jobs slated for Huntsville and nearby Courtland.

Hypersonic Strike capabilities have been identified by the U.S. government as a critical capability to be addressed in support of the U.S. National Security Strategy.

Test firing of all five F-1 engines for the Saturn V S-IC test stage at the Marshall Space Flight Center in the 1960s. (NASA/Marshall)

No. 3: Expertise and pioneer spirit

More than half a century has passed since Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists first made their mark on Huntsville with missile and rocket development. But that legacy remains.

Huntsville is loaded with tech talent and regularly wins accolades for a well-trained and highly educated workforce.

Earlier this year, the city was ranked No. 3 in the nation for the most high-tech jobs, according to an analysis of federal labor statistics by 24/7 Wall Street. The only two metros to top Huntsville are in California’s Silicon Valley and in Maryland near Washington, D.C.

Huntsville has 15.7% of its 222,000-strong working in STEM fields, the analysis shows. The most common STEM job is aerospace engineers, numbering nearly 4,000, more than any other major U.S. metro, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The concentration of aerospace engineers in Huntsville is 38 times the national average, the BLS figures show.

Beyond the skill, the city embraces a spirit of innovation reminiscent of those early rocketeers.

There’s a bustling startup scene, and it’s not just in the defense business.

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is a hub of new discoveries in the life sciences field, while the new Invention to Innovation Center (I²C) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is grooming entrepreneurs who specialize in software, electronics, data science and more.

UAH is in Cummings Research Park, the nation’s second-largest research park and home to nearly 300 companies.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle has called on the Pentagon to choose Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal for the new Space Command headquarters, saying the city is uniquely positioned to protect the nation’s assets and interests in space.

“No one does space and defense better than the brainpower on Redstone Arsenal. The world’s most advanced capabilities in aerospace, space and missile defense, and space exploration are already here,” Battle said.

The Marshall Space Flight Center — named for George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s World War II chief of staff and the creator of the Marshall Plan — is the heart of the U.S. space program. The center, along with Redstone Arsenal, has transformed the Huntsville area into a high-density job center for engineers and physicists. (Encyclopedia of Alabama, courtesy of NASA)

No. 4: Commanding advantage

Huntsville’s low-cost environment is another significant plus.

In recent years, Huntsville has attracted major projects from companies ranging from Polaris (off-road vehicles) to Blue Origin (rocket engines). The Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA joint venture is constructing a $1.6 billion auto plant where the assembly lines will be named “Apollo” and “Discovery.”

A key reason they all picked Huntsville? The cost of doing business in Alabama’s Rocket City is 32% less than the national average, according to the Huntsville Madison County Chamber.

U.S. News & World Report has also picked up on Huntsville’s affordability. In April, the magazine cited Huntsville as the “No. 1 Affordable Place to Live in America” for the second consecutive year.

All of these factors make Huntsville a smart pick for the Space Command HQ.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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