Not often in life do you have the chance to sit down with a four-star general who grew up in Alabama, proudly graduated from Harvard, couldn’t become a pilot because “I’m legally blind” and yet has worked his way up to the top of the Air Force Space Command.

It simply doesn’t happen.

Even before hearing any further details, I got the idea that Gen. John Hyten would make this conversation memorable. And he did, with an amiable, self-deprecating sincerity that instantly makes you feel like an old friend.

This is the general in command of our military’s space activities, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base. All of them, from the global GPS operations with more than 3 billion users (6 billion by 2020) to the immense cyber world, to equipping and maintaining NORAD and other commands, as well as overseeing satellites, missile warning systems and more.

Hyten spent 45 fast-paced minutes covering dozens of topics, such as his obvious pride in the Space Command, the threat of more military budget cuts and how much he has enjoyed his four assignments in the Colorado Springs area.

In other words, he’s not just another high-ranking officer passing through. Hyten has spent 10 years of his adult life here, which means he knows about our area’s great points as well as its problems. His son graduated from Pine Creek High School and now is a golf pro on the staff at the exclusive Sanctuary course near Sedalia in Douglas County. He goes to Air Force football games as well as many other community events, and when the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo made its recent check presentations to military recipients, Hyten didn’t send someone to cover for him. He was there.

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But this interview was about the Space Command, and Gen. Hyten provided abundant material. Some excerpts:

• NORAD. Still operating as a backup inside Cheyenne Mountain (Hyten served there from 1994-96), it remains available on a moment’s notice with computers and workstations mirroring the main facility at Peterson. Also, he says, certain defense contractors working on top-secret projects and desiring total security still are happy to lease small spaces in the mountain.

• Sequestration. Hyten shudders at the memory of FY2013 “when we had to cut loose 50 percent of our contractors,” and the Air Force grounded full squadrons of F-16s, F-15s and A-10s. Since then the budget reductions have been less painful, but “Fiscal Year ’16 scares the heck out of me,” Hyten said. “Nobody will let us shut down our most important missions, but we have to prepare for the possibility of shutting down something vital.”

[pullquote]“We have to do more to reach out to young people so they know
the opportunities open to them.”[/pullquote]

• Personnel needs. Hyten sees two formidable challenges in continuing to have a stable, qualified Air Force. “First is physical fitness — only a small minority of people are physically eligible. They’re either too fat or just not fit enough. Second is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, especially for this command. We’re a very technical operation. You have to have a passion for it, and that requires a big commitment. We have to do more to reach out to young people so they know the opportunities open to them. And we need more women as well as more minorities.”

• Impact. Asked for an untold story about the Space Command, the general quickly said, “Economic impact” with a $3 billion annual influence on Colorado, “and we have 31,000 people who come to work every day in this state. I don’t think many realize the Space Command is one of Colorado’s centerpieces. We also have the Space Foundation with the Space Symposium every year, the biggest event in the world in our industry. And it’s here. That’s an amazing story of an economic engine in progress.”

Our time was gone all too soon, though Hyten acted as though he could have gone on for twice as long. He also answered the inevitable question of how he made it from Alabama to Harvard to four-star general. His father, who later worked on developing the Saturn V rocket, also went to Harvard — but had to leave a year early because of family needs. So young John Hyten simply finished his dad’s dream, helped by being able to co-enroll at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (yes, the real MIT) in its ROTC program, thus paying for his education.

And after nine-plus years in the Air Force, when he began interviewing for lucrative civilian jobs, Hyten listened when his wife wondered “why I’d give up something I love to do every day.”

Today, Gen. John Hyten still hasn’t left the service, “I’ve been lucky to experience a series of miracles,” and now he has four stars on each shoulder to show for it.

We can only hope that when the day comes and he does retire, he’ll decide to stay around.