Joe Mathews: Spaced out

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The Navy's newest unmanned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft platform, the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), completed its first flight from Palmdale (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Chad Slattery)

Palmdale isn’t giving up, but it appears to have lost out on its bid to serve as home base for the new U.S. Space Command. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says the high desert city should give up such flights of fancy. Sure, the Space Force would have meant some high-paying jobs and burnished Palmdale’s aviation legacy, but it wouldn’t have done much for most of the Antelope Valley’s nearly 500,000 inhabitants. Mathews says Palmdale’s future really rests on tapping into the unrealized potential of those residents.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Hello, Palmdale. Planet Earth calling. You ever coming back here?

You, a struggling working-class exurb of 160,000, may be located in the Antelope Valley, in north L.A. County’s. But your civic head lives in outer space.

Is it your hot desert air, your elevation (2,657 feet), or all your psychedelically orange poppies? I don’t know, but you are always madly charging toward some grandiose goal line—building an “intercontinental airport,” becoming a high-speed-rail hub, or commanding space warfare—but never quite reaching kicking the football. You’re the Charlie Brown of California cities.

Your latest face-plant speaks volume about the combination of space-age nostalgia and futuristic myopia that afflict you.

You just spent 18 months telling the world that you should be the new, permanent headquarters of the U.S. Space Command—which handles the space operations of all military branches, including the newly formed Space Force. [SR1] You pursued Space Command even though momentum for a new headquarters, came from President Trump, who hates California, and even though you weren’t on the initial list of top prospects.

This did not deter you, because you think your generations-old aerospace history—the SR-71 Blackbird, Edwards tests pilots, building space shuttles, your still active Plant 42 classified manufacturing facility—will define your future. You don’t seem to recognize that California long ago lost its dominance of aerospace, or that the future of warfare is in cyberspace, not aerospace.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when you weren’t among the six finalists just announced in this Space Command beauty pageant. If a California site were chosen for Space Command, Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Santa Barbara County, would make more sense. But no California facility made the list; Space Command’s interim headquarters in Colorado is a near lock to be the permanent site.

But none of that has stopped Palmdale from promoting itself for Space Command. After all, it gives real estate interests the chance to juice speculation in Antelope Valley land and homes from Rosamond to Ridgecrest.

Palmdale might take its eyes off the starry skies and focus more on its own people, who face all the costs of California life, with few of the benefits. Poverty rates are above statewide averages, and just 15 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees.

Instead Palmdale’s civic leaders have often been distracted by a feud—fueled by economic development competition—with neighboring Lancaster. That feud, and Palmdale’s aerospace obsession, has produced scandal; a former mayor faces from the AERO Institute, a nonprofit that contracted with the city to produce more aerospace workers.

Space is hardly the only windmill at which Palmdale has tilted. For a half-century, L.A. strung the Antelope Valley along with the promise of   a great new international airport there. And Palmdale has been waiting in vain for California’s High-Speed Rail Authority to bring its trains to the city.

This devotion to big projects is rooted in an illogic: that the desert is full of space to do something big. But the Antelope Valley’s nearly 500,000 residents—more than Sacramento—are actually the region’s greatest assets.

Rather than seeking command over space, Palmdale and the Antelope Valley should  invest in its people instead. Why not experiment with universal basic income, like in Stockton, or put more into job training, or boosting healthcare institutions? The region also needs more higher education than a small satellite of CSU Bakersfield; Palmdale would be the ideal host for a third Cal Poly campus, which could produce a more educated workforce.

One irony of the Space Command contest is that the military, in assessing potential headquarters, was looking for more than nearby aerospace. It prioritized areas where Palmdale does not rank high: local school quality and affordable living.  

It’s a Shakespearean irony that should echo through the desert: The fastest way to the future lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews