U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks after accepting the military space Government Leader of the Year award at the 2nd Annual SpaceNews Awards for Excellence & Innovation on Dec. 3, 2018, in Washington. Credit: Lisa Nipp for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson informed President Trump on Friday that she will be stepping down May 31 to become president of the University of Texas El Paso.

“Upon a favorable final vote by the Regents, I will resign my position as Secretary of the Air Force effective May 31, 2019,” Wilson wrote March 8 in a resignation letter. “This should allow sufficient time for a smooth transition and ensure effective advocacy during upcoming Congressional hearings.”

She noted in the letter that she decided to move to academia because “American higher education needs strong leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“It has been a privilege to serve alongside our Airmen over the past two years and I am proud of the progress that we have made restoring our nation’s defense,” she said in a statement on Friday. “We have improved the readiness of the force; we have cut years out of acquisition schedules and gotten better prices through competition; we have repealed hundreds of superfluous regulations; and we have strengthened our ability to deter and dominate in space.”

News of Wilson’s resignation sent shockwaves across the Pentagon on Friday. Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers was briefing reporters when Reuters broke the news and it was clear he had not been informed that Wilson was stepping down. Wilson’s own staff didn’t learn about her resignation until Friday morning. According to several members of her staff, the entire Air Force was stunned by the news.

In recent weeks, Wilson had been mentioned as a possible candidate for Secretary of Defense. She will be leaving the Air Force at a critical time when DoD is trying to get congressional approval to establish a Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military under the Department of the Air Force.

Before Trump ordered the Pentagon to stand up a Space Force, Wilson had opposed the idea. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan took the lead in the Space Force reorganization and Wilson got behind the plan, giving it full support. She did however rankle DoD and administration officials by releasing a proposal and cost estimate of $13 billion for the establishment of a Space Force and a U.S. Space Command over five years. Shanahan outright rejected that estimate as over-inflated, but to this day her supporters believe it is accurate. Wilson also has clashed with Shanahan over his plan to create a Space Development Agency as a Pentagon-run organization. Wilson has argued that the Air Force already has capabilities to develop space technologies and that a new agency would be redundant.

During her two years as secretary, Wilson has sought to transform the way the Air Force organizes and equips its air, space and cyber forces. Specific to space, she championed SMC 2.0, a sweeping reorganization of the Space and Missile Systems Center to speed up the delivery of space capabilities such as a new generation of missile-warning satellites.

Wilson successfully fought for budget increases for space. “Whether Congress goes along with President Donald Trump’s plan to establish a Space Force, the nation is prepared to protect and advance its dominance in space,” Wilson said in a Dec. 3 interview. The winner of SpaceNews’ 2018 military space Government Leader of the Year award, Wilson has been insistent that the Air Force stay focused on the space mission while still supporting efforts to stand up a new military branch for space in fiscal year 2020.

Trump nominated Wilson, a former member of Congress from New Mexico and an Air Force Academy graduate, as the 24th Secretary of the Air Force on Jan. 25, 2017 and she was confirmed by the Senate four months later. Wilson pointed out in her resignation letter that her family home is in New Mexico, a few hundred miles north of El Paso.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...