The 30th Space Wing commander of Vandenberg Air Force Base made a plea for the base's future, announced a mission to Mars and gave an update on more terrestrial programs during Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Salute to Veterans Luncheon on Wednesday afternoon.

Col. Michael Hough was the keynote speaker at the annual celebration of veterans and active duty personnel held at the Historic Santa Maria Inn.

Vandenberg is at a crossroads and needs to attract more commercial business to secure its future, he said, enlisting those in attendance to help tell the base's story and express its needs to raise awareness and support for its programs.

“We need to do a better job of attracting commercial launch to this base. That is the future of this base. That is the future of launch,” Hough said.

Layers of bureaucracy, competition from other states and a lack of support from state and federal officials are contributing to a drop in commercial space launches from the base, he said.

“The requirements to launch here in the state of California are really stringent.”

Hough relayed part of a recent conversation he had with his superiors about a private company that is developing an experimental space plane that will take off and fly in a polar orbit.

Although Vandenberg’s space operations were strategically placed because of its ability to launch vehicles in a polar orbit, the commercial space plane company chose to take its business to Cape Canaveral, Florida, because, “it has become too difficult to launch from Vandenberg,” he said.

“The state of Florida is really behind Cape Canaveral. They are very active. They actually go out and recruit launch to come in and do what they have to do to bring commercial launch in.”

Cape Canaveral recently built a polar orbit facility and SpaceX, a private launch company, is currently building its own facility in Texas.

“We are not the only game in town when it comes to polar orbit,” Hough said.

An interplanetary mission

Next year, NASA plans to launch a historic mission to Mars from Vandenberg, Hough said.

InSight will be the first operation to focus on examining the deep interior of Mars. Information gathered will boost understanding of how all rocky planets formed, including Earth, according to NASA officials.

While InSight will be a first for interplanetary research, it will also mark a milestone for Vandenberg.

“This is a NASA mission and it is the first interplanetary mission to come out of Vandenberg Air Force Base,” Hough said.

InSight is set to launch in May and should reach Mars by late November next year.

“This is building up to be a big event. NASA is looking at bringing up to 3,000 people for this event,” Hough said.

Terrestrial projects are underway

The solar farm that has been growing across Highway 1 from the Vandenberg’s main gate is anticipated to be online in December, Hough said Wednesday.

It is expected to produce 35 percent of the base’s power needs.

During his address, Hough also said that changes will be coming to the VAFB’s golf course because of a public-private partnership. He said the course, which has been shuttered since last year, is on track to become much larger with three 18-hole courses being constructed.

Though the decision is not final, Hough believes Vandenberg will not be the new home of a planned expansion of the Air Force’s remote piloted vehicle program.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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