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From left, U.S. Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson, University of Texas System Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Archie Holmes Jr., UT Austin President Jay Hartzell and UTEP President Heather Wilson attend a news conference announcing a partnership program at UTEP's Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall on Aug. 26, 2021.
From left, U.S. Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson, University of Texas System Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Archie Holmes Jr., UT Austin President Jay Hartzell and UTEP President Heather Wilson attend a news conference announcing a partnership program at UTEP's Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall on Aug. 26, 2021. (Omar Ornelas, El Paso Times/TNS)

EL PASO, Texas (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Space Force is partnering with the University of Texas at El Paso, UT Austin and the UT System to create a pipeline of personnel to fill its ranks and help other space industries.

“The University of Texas at El Paso has done space research for decades; satellite technology, lunar exploration, spaceflight guidance systems, microgravity and more, and we are pleased to be able to support the United States Space Force in their critical work of protecting the United States assets in orbit,” UTEP President Heather Wilson said.

UTEP and UT Austin are two of 11 universities chosen to join the Space Force’s University Partnership Program in fiscal year 2021.

UT leaders met with U.S. Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson at the UTEP campus Thursday to sign a comprehensive umbrella memorandum of understanding between UT campuses and the Space Force to provide advanced research and workforce development, focusing on diversity.

Universities chosen for the Space Force’s Partnership Program were picked based on STEM degree offerings and space-related research labs and initiatives, “robust” ROTC programs, diverse student populations and degrees, and programming supporting higher education for the military, veterans and their families.

Of the 66,000 degrees across the UT System’s 13 academic and health institutions in the 2019-20 academic year, 47% were awarded in STEM or health-related fields, and 42% of those undergraduate degrees were awarded to Hispanics or African Americans, said Archie Holmes Jr., UT Systems executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.

UTEP will also break ground in 2022 on a $70 million and 80,000- to 90,000-gross-square-foot four-story Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace Center.

Space takeover in West Texas, Southwest

The Space Force is the sixth and newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. The branch was established in December 2019 under the Trump administration. It was the first time a new military service branch had been created in more than 70 years, Thompson said.

The Space Force is part of the U.S. Department of the Air Force and is overseen by the secretary of the Air Force.

Wilson’s last day as Air Force secretary was seven months before the Space Force was established; she stepped down to lead UTEP in August 2019.

The Borderland is already home to billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space tourism company in Van Horn and British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceflight company in Southeast New Mexico. Both companies launched their first spaceflights in July.

Goals to educate, train and partner

The initial goals of Space Force were to educate and train new Guardians, as Space Force members are known, by developing a “deeper knowledge and understanding” of the space domain and creating partnerships with organizations with strong research and technology programs, Thompson said.

Thompson said he understands there will be competition with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin for workers but said the competition is healthy, adding a Space Force priority is to grow the U.S. commercial space industry.

“If along the way we inspire others who want to work commercially, Texas is a great region for commercial space industries in the U.S. If they want to work for NASA, if they want to work elsewhere, that’s a win for the nation,” Thompson said.

The next steps in the partnership will be connecting with research institutions and centers in Texas, sending members of the Space Force to Texas to conduct mutual research, building relationships with new Space Force partners, and focusing energy on ROTC programs at UT schools, Thompson said.

“The good news is there’s going to be a lot of competition for talent. The bad news is there’s going to be a lot of competition for talent,” Thompson said. “We’re developing strategic partnerships within the commercial sector as well.”

There’s no timeline for the new project, which has been on UTEP’s radar for almost a year, Wilson said.

She said partnerships will play an important role in funding for the new project.

“UTEP is very well positioned (near) White Sands Missile Range and Van Horn, Texas, is contributing to commercial space, so I think there are tremendous opportunities for young people growing up in this region to be able to go to the stars.”

U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar, D- El Paso, was one of the members of Congress to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act last year, which created the Space Force.

Escobar is a member of the Armed Services Committee in Congress. She said finding a way to uplift her alma mater UTEP through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense has been a goal since she was county judge.

Escobar said she has prioritized adding diversity to the ranks of the Department of Defense from the onset of her service with the House Armed Services Committee.

Escobar said she hoped the new partnership between the Department of Defense and UTEP would create opportunity for “a new economic development ecosystem.”

After speaking with Thompson about some of the “early opportunities” for the new agreement, which will be research based, Escobar said she hopes funding for the new project will come from the Department of Defense.

“There are other opportunities as well, for sending both military and civilian personnel to UTEP to earn their master’s degrees or Ph.D.s, and that accomplishes two things; one, it helps grow the programs here and, number two, it creates opportunities for mentorship for actual Space Force personnel and both civilian and military, to mentor students,” Escobar said.

“As the DOD becomes more reliant on universities like UTEP ... we are able to grow the supply chain in manufacturing, and, hopefully, we’ll be able to create an environment where UTEP graduates can stay and get private sector contracts for some of this work. That’s more longer term,” Escobar said.

ccarreon@elpasotimes.com

©2021 The El Paso (Texas) Times.

Visit elpasotimes.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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