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Q&A: Rep. Matt Boehnke on his effort to build a Space Academy in Washington

Rep. Matt Boehnke (R-8th District) introduced two pieces of legislation this session meant to spur economic development and workforce training in the emerging space industry. One of these bills, HJM 4015, would have the State of Washington ask the federal government to consider building a Space Academy here in Washington to train the first military leaders of the newly-established U.S. Space Force, which was established as its own branch of the U.S. military by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. Rep. Boehnke sat down with me this week to talk about what prompted him to think about the establishment of a Space Academy in Washington State. 

Madeline Shannon: What prompted you to think about the establishment of a Space Academy in Washington? 

Rep. Matt Boehnke: I’m a local kid that grew up in Kennewick, so I know about the community and one of the things about being a representative of the community I grew up in is I understand the economy, the workforce and the needs of the economic community. I also flew helicopters in the military for 22 years and I have a masters in aeronautical science. I thought, “What is a good idea we can bring to the table not only for economic development, but to create jobs?” And I thought, “What else is better than the Space Force?” So when the Space Force was established I thought this is something that’s on the radar. So I started looking around the state of Washington and seeing what we have. We have a foundation for success and we are leading in the space industry, but I don’t think we’re on a lot of people’s radar on the federal level. We don’t have that splash. I used to live in Huntsville, Alabama and then in Florida when I was stationed down there. You have Cape Canaveral, even Houston. Those are the big ones everybody talks about. So being in the military, I kind of put it together. If the state doesn’t start early enough, we’re not going to get on anybody’s radar. So A, I want to get legislation out there that pushes the envelope a little bit to show we still can innovate. We’re the home of Microsoft, Amazon, and all these great companies. We have great minds that are coming to our state and we want to attract more of those. How can we innovate and be the Washington we want to be and be bigger, bolder, brighter, and showcase this to the rest of the nation? And B, we’re pushing this at the federal level and asking “What are the things they need when they start a new branch?” Every branch has a training academy, that’s an easy one. That’s why I’ve been to West Point and the Air Force Academy. I got buddies that went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Why not put a Space Academy out here? In my district, specifically, we are cleaning up and doing a great job with the nuclear power plant we have there. We have a foundation for success right there in our community and we work well with the federal government. We have federal contracts with different parts of that cleanup effort and we have Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, so we’re a big STEM community. Science and technology is already embraced in our community.That in a nutshell is one of the reasons why I went forward with this idea. 

MS: Is there an effort to open a Space Academy in other states? Do we have some competition? 

MB: I haven’t heard any yet, but I’m sure there’s already delegations that are going to Congress that are already pushing. They’re in the planning phase of actually sending out representatives from the different parts of our federal government to see what we currently have on the landscape. I’m sure Houston already has NASA, there’s already Cape Canaveral and Florida, so that’s kind of easy. They can say “Hey, just come to us.” But I say let’s come out to a new place to kind of re-energize this effort. I think Washington can bring big parties together that the state and federal government are willing to work with.This is a really big issue and it’s critical to where we’re going to be in the next 10, 20, 30 years. 

MS: What would have to happen for a Space Academy to open here? 

MB: First off, we have to send a message — I call it “shock and awe.” So the first phase is shock and awe and getting it out there and on the federal government’s radar screen. That’s why we wanted this House Joint Memorial signed off on by everybody in the House so we can send it over to the Senate, and have really the governor push this and say, “We want to attract this business to our community.” Number two, is getting on the radar screen of the decision-makers. So the next two or three years is critical to ensure we’re going to have a team put together to help study this, to ensure we’re communicating these efforts, and really get these priorities and goals lined up with what the federal government’s going to be coming up with. Then third, we’ll go after that federal money, because they’re going to start building this training academy. 

MS: I understand some refer to the “Kennedy Doctrine,” which is the effort and will that got us to the moon. Ever since then, we’ve operated under the “Johnson Doctrine,” or the attitude that doesn’t demand more space exploration. What has to happen to gain the political and public support for more space exploration? 

MB: I think it would take a person to drive that innovation again, to really inspire people to come underneath one cause, and JFK was great at that. I believe we went off track, and he inspired people and said, “We’re going to go to the moon, we’ll be there first, and we’ll make sure we’re doing it the right way and safely,” and he backed it up. I believe we don’t have that inspiration anymore to go after something like that. We need inspirational leadership and we need to really get the grassroots together to say we’re going to go to the moon, we’re going to continue and we’re going to go further.

MS: Is there a generation of young people willing to go to space? Do you see a generation committed to being astronauts and space scientists? 

MB: Yes, yes, I do. It’s really exciting. We have a young lady, a 32-year-old woman, who graduated from Richland High School in my district. She went to the Naval Academy, was a sub commander, of all things, and she just passed the last phase to get her ticket to be the next one on the launch. She’s done amazing things throughout her career and it’s people like that who showcase it’s not just a man’s world out there. It’s a team effort to get astronauts off the ground and then get them returned home back again safely. Let’s galvanize all different walks of life to showcase what we can do here in the state of Washington. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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