Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

The Air Force Research Laboratory unveiled its Space Warfighting Operations Research and Development (SWORD) lab at Kirtland Air Force Base. The facility is part of the U.S.’ continued investment in its Space Force program. SWORD is a $12.8 million, 26,000-foot lab that consolidates and expands the already existing facilities and research at Kirtland Air Force Base. The lab will focus on the research and development of technologies aimed at advancing warfighting capabilities in space to maintain and defend the country’s interest in orbit. 

“Space is not the same domain that it was 50, 60, 70 years ago. It used to be very quiet up there, not a lot of people participated, and in fact, it was only governments that had access to space. Things have really changed in the past few decades, and particularly in the last 10 years,” Air Force General Heather Pringle said at the facility’s ribbon cutting. “Access to space is easier as it’s ever been and getting easier. It’s getting crowded up there.”

Governments around the world have been increasing their investment in space programs. In 2020 the United Kingdom increased its defense budget for the first time in decades, and a significant portion of that budget was injected into its space program. Other governments have also increased their funding for their own space programs—the only exception being Russia, which actually decreased its space funding in 2020.

From 2014 to 2020, the U.S. increased its space funding from $19.19 billion to $47.69 billion. That is nearly a 60 percent increase in spending within a six-year period. With the announcement of a U.S. Space Force in 2019 by the Trump Administration, spending on space programs is likely to continue. 

The SWORD lab will also be one of the most advanced in the country. “Within space vehicles research, we are the preeminent lab. There is no question in my mind about that. Part of that is due to the fact that we have specialists in certain areas that are the best in the world in their area of knowledge,” USAF Colonel Eric J. Felt said. Col. Felt also mentioned Kirtland’s history as a center for innovation within the U.S. military on technology and research. “The technology that has come out of here has lowered the cost of small satellites by 99 percent, lowered the cost by launch by 90 percent. That has enabled this space renaissance that you’re seeing now,” Colonel Felt said.

“What we want to ensure is that space can continue to be used for peaceful reasons. We want to deter any adverse actions out there. There’s a lot that this facility can do to facilitate those goals,” Gen Pringle said, regarding future goals for the SWORD’s involvement with the U.S. space program. Officials and partners in attendance noted that the focus on the lab will not be concerned with the challenges of tomorrow, but will focusing, instead, on what might be encountered five, 10, or 20 years from now.

The facility will also partner with local students in the future to recognize and develop future projects. 

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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.