Col. Anthony Mastalir spent his career as an Air Force space officer but now finds himself at the vanguard of the U.S. Space Force, where he's helping to shape how the new military branch operates and develops its culture.
He says he is very mindful of the opportunities inherent in starting something on this scale — and the necessity of breaking the mold in areas such as recruiting and training.
“When you take a clean sheet approach, you kind of create it with purpose,” Mastalir, commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, told POLITICO. “That’s what we're trying to do. What kind of skill sets are we going to need? What kind of skill sets are we going to grow?”
He is also helping to spearhead the Pentagon’s efforts to update and expand one of the government’s leading space launch facilities.
Mastalir spoke about how the space wing is trying to simplify the red tape for commercial partners such as the small satellite launch company startup Firefly, which recently became a Vandenberg tenant. He also outlined how Vandenberg is competing for the opportunity to house more space forces.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Vandenberg is undergoing significant change as one of the primary launch facilities. What is your role?
One of my primary goals is to really jump-start [Chief of Space Operations] Gen. [John] Raymond's vision for the [launch] range of the future. And that's the modernization of the Eastern and Western Ranges [in California and Florida] to bring us into the 21st century — and really allow us to increase capacity at both ranges.
And that includes attracting more commercial partners to take advantage of the launch facilities?
One is understanding how to leverage commercial investment. We certainly understand that competition drives down cost. To the extent that we can facilitate commercial growth here at Vandenberg, we are willing to do that. One of the pieces of the commercial space efforts is partnering with the state of California, which has expressed increased interest in partnering with the Air Force, now the Space Force, so that we can try to find a way to incentivize commercial providers to the central coast here.
A subset of that is doing a better job of aligning the processes and the capabilities and the customer interface — across the 45th Space Wing at Patrick [Air Force Base in Florida] and the 30th Space Wing here — so that as you do prepare for more commercial customers, they recognize the processes that are in place because they're consistent.
That’s something that we spent a lot of time on over the last six months — whether it's safety processes, environmental processes. We're working with the FAA to try to streamline a lot of the processes for licensure so that commercial customers do not have to follow separate U.S. government agency processes [and] we can kind of bring those together and facilitate.
There’s an economic development aspect to this. That's not really my objective. That's the state's objective and the local community's objective. But to the extent that it also increases competition, which drives down costs for the things that we need to do, I'm all in.
How important is the environmental piece of it given the hazardous materials required in this business?
That’s an area where a new startup, a new entrant into space lift could potentially struggle a little bit, not being all that familiar with the process. So to that end, we're working on an umbrella for all different types of boosters that would greatly speed up the process by which they would be able to apply for and receive licensure to do those types of activities.
One of those new commercial launch tenants is Firefly.
The feedback we've gotten from Firefly has been very positive in terms of how we're able to kind of help them work through that. Firefly's another example where we've been working real hard to kind of streamline the licensure process so that they're not burdened with us.
The 30th Space Wing now falls under the new U.S. Space Force. How is that transition proceeding?
When we stood up U.S. Space Force, all of the wings that formerly made up Air Force Space Command automatically became part of U.S. Space Force. So we are right in the middle of that. What we tell our airmen today is that you are all airmen, you are all still in the United States Air Force but you are assigned to the U.S. Space Force. So it's happening in real time here.
How do you see the Space Force evolving in the first year with its own dedicated funding?
One is having that independence in the same way that the Air Force sought that independence back in 1947. The advantage that we have is that this is a very amicable split. [Air Force Chief of Staff] Gen. [David] Goldfein and Gen. Raymond are working closely together and really making the very best decisions to help this new service stand up. It’s definitely an exciting time.
[Before, space missions] had to compete a little bit more with lots of other things that the Air Force had to do. But it’s more than just resources. It's everything from being able to develop doctrine, being able to develop options for the president when needed — not only to deter adversaries, but to ensure that we're able to project power.
What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities?
When you take a clean sheet approach, you kind of create it with purpose. That’s what we're trying to do. What kind of skill sets are we going to need? What kind of skill sets are we going to grow? Are we going to have somebody who maybe has opportunities to cross over between engineering, acquisition and operations?
How involved are you in the ongoing effort to decide where to locate some of the Space Force’s assets?
Vandenberg is one of the options so we support the [Secretary of the Air Force’s] process by receiving the site survey team and providing the data that they need to collect so that they can properly score each location. What we have here, what kind of capacity, how many homes, what kind of military treatment facilities are available. All the things that you would need to ensure are in place if you're going to stand up a new headquarters somewhere.
There has been a lot of focus on the Space Force’s uniforms. How important is that?
Cultural artifacts like that are actually very important when you consider the service as an institution rather than an occupation. There's a lot of elements of military service that you're not going to see when you go to work at Amazon. There's the customs and courtesies. There are the uniforms, the ranks, the badges, the seal. Those are very important cultural aspects of the service.
Do you feel the public spirit about the Space Force?
My daughter's up at [the University of California, Berkeley] and some of her colleagues up there were like, ‘I would never join the military, but I want to join the Space Force. How do I do that?’ And so there's an element there that kind of makes you wonder, ‘How are we going to go after and capture the talent that we need to capture in the Space Force?’
What’s your view on establishing a Space Guard and Reserve like the Air National Guard?
I think it makes a lot of sense. I think the Guard and Reserve are perfect partners for the U.S. Space [Force] to embrace. Of course, Congress will need to pass that kind of legislation.