Looking back over the various assignments he’s had during the course of his Air Force career, Col. J. Christopher Moss fondly recalls his three years at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where he aided in about 10 launches of the now-defunct U.S. Space Shuttle program.
A framed photo of one of those launches hangs on a wall in his office at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“That was an exciting time,” said Moss, who was in Cape Canaveral from 1995 to 1998. “The shuttle program had run its course and it was obviously time to retire the program (in 2011), but I’d always thought that (a shuttle launch) was something that every American should go see.”
That trip down memory lane was a brief one for Moss, who is now particularly concerned — and visibly excited — about the future of space transport.
Preparing for the upcoming changes in space launch technology and continuing to cultivate partnerships in the local community were among the primary goals Moss shared during a conversation this week as he continued to settle into his new role as commander of the 30th Space Wing and Western Range at VAFB.
Moss, who assumed command on June 15, expressed excitement over the possibilities that lie ahead for VAFB’s launch sites.
“As the Range is integral to launching to rockets, we’ve got to change with that technology and with the times to be able to support it,” he said.
Several companies are already developing and testing new ways to launch — and in some cases, recover — rockets.
The privately-owned SpaceX, in particular, has already this year twice attempted to launch a rocket and then have that rocket land on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. Those tests are part of the company’s stated goal of producing a reusable rocket system in which the rocket would fall gently back to a target on land.
“To me, personally, that’s a very exciting capability,” Moss said. “It is the single biggest change in launching that we’ve had in the past 25 to 30 years, and maybe even longer. This is a whole new way of launching rockets and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Another advancement involves rockets having built-in tracking and self-destruct capabilities. Currently, launch personnel monitor the path of each rocket that is launched and it is up to them to destroy the rocket if it dangerously veers off course.
Having that capability built into the rocket would reduce the amount of equipment needed and cut down on operational costs, much like being able to reuse a rocket would make launches more affordable.
“When we can launch rockets cheaper, that’s good for everybody,” Moss said.
The next launch at VAFB is scheduled for next week. On Thursday, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is slated to carry a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.
Moss said he anticipates VAFB increasing the number of satellites that it sends into orbit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the overall launch rate will increase. Because satellites are getting smaller, single rockets may soon be able to carry more than one.
“We are plugged into what the future of space lift could mean, in terms of tempo — we call it operational tempo — and how many launches we need to be able to do in a year to meet the demands of our customers,” he said. “As we forecast into the future, we do see some growth and I think we’re postured to meet that growth.”
While launch technology is primarily what VAFB is known for, Moss said he also wants to continue the base’s positive relationships with the surrounding communities.
So far in his short tenure as commander, Moss has been to a handful of community events, including a veterans breakfast in Lompoc hosted by Congresswoman Lois Capps and a car show hosted by the Lompoc Police and Fire departments, both in August, as well as local chamber of commerce luncheons.
Moss noted that he has been encouraged by the support he has been met with.
“We’re very fortunate to have local communities that support the base,” he said. “That’s not true on every base, but it is true here and we need to foster that and be good community members.”
As a way to connect with local community members, VAFB has an honorary commander program, in which each squadron or unit commander appoints a member of the local community as an honorary commander.
Moss’s honorary commander is Bob Hatch, a former longtime CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and local leader and advocate regarding veterans affairs.
Hatch said he hasn’t yet had a chance to sit down with Moss, but he is confident in the new commander’s vision.
“He’s a real professional and he understands the need for community relations because it’s a partnership,” Hatch said of Moss. “(The base) provides a positive economic impact, not only for the folks who work on base but the folks who live in the community.”
Developing and preparing airmen with mentor programs and continuing “institutionalized mission success” were among the other primary goals Moss shared.
“We’ve had 29 consecutive successful launches here and that is not an accident,” he said of the latter. “That is the result of people who have committed themselves to proven processes who are dedicated to excellence and who are very conscientious about what they are doing. I want to continue that.”
Moss, who grew up in a military family, said he never considered going into any other career path. This is his second stint at VAFB. He was the commander of the 614th Air and Space Operations Center and director of the Joint Space Operations Center at VAFB from 2010 to 2012.
He said that in his new role, he has a whole new appreciation for the base’s many moving parts.
After assignments that have taken him all over the U.S. and abroad, Moss said he is grateful to be back on the Central Coast. He and his wife, Brenda, live with their 11-year-old son, A.J. Their 18-year-old son, John, is attending college in Wisconsin, and their 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, is attending a boarding school in Minnesota, where she is training in figure skating.
“If you’ve got family, I don’t see how it gets much better than Vandenberg,” Moss said, noting that he likes to run in his spare time. “I think anything you’d want to do, you can get from right here.”