WASHINGTON —  The new vice commander of Air Force Space Command, Lt. Gen. David “DT” Thompson made his first public appearance Tuesday at a lunch meeting of the Washington Space Business Roundtable.

“Some people are calling me ‘East Coast Thompson,’” he said to chuckles from the audience of space industry executives. The nickname helps tell him apart from the other three-star space leader named Thompson, Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in Los Angeles.

The Air Force last fall decided that Space Command chief Gen. John Raymond should have a deputy based in the Pentagon so he can spend less time traveling back and forth to D.C. and more time running operations in Colorado Springs.

DT Thompson was formerly deputy commander of Space Command and most recently Raymond’s special assistant. The Senate confirmed his appointment in March.

Just a few weeks into the job, Thompson said the learning curve has been smooth. “I have been preparing for this for about a year,” he said. “What I didn’t expect was how important it was to have a senior uniformed official in the Pentagon working with the air staff who deeply understood space.”

Having a three-star Space Command official at the Pentagon was not the Air Force’s original plan. The service in April 2017 announced it would name a three-star deputy chief of staff for space operations, the A11 on the air staff. Thompson at the time was identified as the likely A11. But the idea did not go over well with congressional critics who saw the A11 as a weak attempt to demonstrate the service cared about space as much as it cared about its air mission.

Thompson will be engaging Congress quite a bit, he said. It’s one reason it was important for him to be in D.C. so he can be available when lawmakers request meetings.

“We needed somebody to work space every single day,” he said. “Before, I didn’t recognize how much that was needed. We are trying to raise the conversation inside the Pentagon and in Congress on the things we’re doing in space.”

Thompson said he is now focused on the reorganization of space acquisition program offices at the Space and Missile Systems Center, an effort known as SMC 2.0. This is a top priority for Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and for Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, both of whom are pushing the Air Force procurement organizations to accelerate the modernization of space systems.

“Griffin was part of those discussion,” Thompson said. “We got his feedback on that.” And Secretary Wilson made it clear she “expects more emphasis on science and technology,” he said. One of the challenges is to find the right balance between “evolutionary” improvement and high-risk big-payoff investments.

A new missile warning constellation that will replace the current SBIRS systems — known as next-generation persistent infrared, or OPIR — is an example of an evolutionary step. “OPIR Block O will look a lot like previous versions” but will be made “more defendable,” said Thompson. In the future the Air Force will look for opportunities to “reset the architecture.”

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...