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SPEECH | Oct. 26, 2017

U.S. Space & Rocket Center: Dr. Werhner von Braun Memorial Reception

General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM): Let me do a wingman check real quick. So [U.S. Air Force] Maj. Tony Santino, where are you? [U.S. Air Force] Lt. Col. [Clair] “Static” Kling. Is he breathing? Because he was responsible for that video. So Tony, is he okay? Tell him he’s fired, and we’ll hire him back in the morning.


Thank you, Mark [Larson, master of ceremonies].


It is wonderful to be back in this hall. It’s wonderful to be home. It’s always great to be able to come home. 


This is such a place, and today is such a great chance to meet with some of you. I got to meet with the Davidsons you know, this is the Davidson Center; look at this place, just look around. It’s not just the Saturn V, but it’s the Apollo, it’s everything that is the best of this nation and it’s right here. So thanks to the Space and Rocket Center, thanks to the National Space Club, thanks to the Davidsons for what they’ve done here. As glorious as meeting with many of you, but the best part of this day by far I believe – believe it or not, is not right now.


The best part of this day was lunch time today. Because lunch time today I got to spend with 400 middle schoolers from Marshall County. And I’ll tell you what, if you want to get excited about life, go with a bunch of 7th and 8th graders. The thing about middle schoolers is they will ask you any question there is, and they did. They asked me hard questions. Difficult questions. Questions that were exciting.


But the one question, the one theme that over, really over everything is, how do you get to be a four-star general? So I’ll get to the punch line right now, and then I’m going to actually back up with a story I told the other day. I’m going to tell you my story to start with. But for me to grow up to be a four-star general, a blind kid from Alabama. To go into the United States Air Force and grow up to be a four-star general, to become the combatant commander of the most powerful command not just in the United States, but in the world, is impossible. It cannot happen. But it did.


The other thing to remember is my deputy commander is [U.S. Navy] Vice Admiral [Charles] Chas Richard. One of the finest submariners in the Navy. He has spent seven years of his life on nuclear submarines under the ocean. And oh, by the way, he’s a short-timer compared to some of the submariners I’ve met. There’s a chief of the boat who has been under water for 17 years of his life. It’s remarkable when you think about it. But Chas Richard went to Decatur High School. I went to Grissom High School. I went to Grissom High, graduated in 1977; Chas went to Decatur, graduated in 1978. He becomes a submariner, I become a space and missile guy. Our paths never crossed. We probably played sports against each other in something when we were here, but our paths never crossed. And then somehow in 2016, we both show up at U.S. Strategic Command. A kid from Huntsville and a kid from Decatur. How is that possible?

So what’s my story? Chas’ story is pretty amazing too, but here’s my story.


1965, my family moves from California to Huntsville, Alabama, because my dad comes to work on Apollo. My dad comes to work on the Saturn V. And he worked on the Saturn V. He did integration tests on the Saturn V. I got to spend two summers at the Cape [Cape Kennedy]. He helped to build the infrastructure at the Cape that we were going to use to launch the Saturn V. I got to see the F-1 engine up close. I got to see F-1 tests from not too far away as a little kid.


And when you were in Huntsville back then, some of you were in Huntsville back then. When we tested the F-1 engine, that’s a million and a half pounds of thrust. One time we tested all five engines, 7.5 million pounds of thrust at once. The entire town shook to its core, and dishes would go bouncing off the kitchen tables onto the floor, and pictures would fall off the walls. And it was just remarkable. And I always remember it was an amazing time because nobody ever seemed to complain. So I asked my mom a couple of years ago, as I was starting to tell the story. I said mom, back then, wasn’t it upsetting when all the dishes came off the --  no, John. That’s just the price we were all paying because we were building a rocket and going to the moon. We were building the rocket and going to the moon. And that was everybody in this town. It was remarkable to be part of that.


So that got me excited a little bit. But 1969, holy cow, 1969 is when people changed it, when everything changed. And a lot of people go back to July of 1969 and you saw the Saturn V that my dad helped build, take three men to the moon. That’s pretty amazing. But the real amazing memory for me is August of 1969. My birthday, my 10th birthday, July 18, 1969, and I was at my great-grandfather’s house in Fort Huron, Michigan, watching it on a black and white television like everybody else, and we came home, and I started 5th grade. I started 5th grade at Chaffee Elementary School. Because if you think it’s a miracle for the United States coming from Apollo I in January 1967 and the tragedy of that, to the launch of the Saturn V all the way to the moon just two and a half years later. Maybe another miracle, almost as amazing. In the city of Huntsville, in the state of Alabama, not known as the greatest education mecca of the country. But during that same two and a half years we built three schools here in Huntsville, Alabama. Three schools that focused on math and science. And those schools were named for the three Apollo astronauts -- Chaffee Elementary School, Ed White Junior High School and Grissom High School. And I got to go to two of them. And because I was good at math and science, one of my teachers, Ms. Bradshaw, she got me to go to the opening ceremonies. I have this vivid memory of meeting Dr. [Wernher] von Braun. A vivid memory of meeting Dr. von Braun. And I know I was there, and my brother’s here tonight, and he knows I was there. And it’s the most amazing memory for me. But my brother actually found the program a couple of years ago of that event. And my memory was not right. I thought it was cutting the ribbon at Chaffee Elementary School. But it was actually a combined ceremony in downtown Huntsville, when they announced the opening of all three schools. And that’s when they cut the ribbon of all three schools, and that’s where I was. Man, to this day in my memory it’s me and Dr. von Braun, shaking his hand at Chaffee Elementary School.


Then I became enamored with math and science. And what did I want to do when I grew up? And I asked the kids, what do you think I wanted to do after that? And every one of the kids, all 400 of them, said you wanted to be an astronaut. I said darn right, I wanted to be an astronaut. But guess what? I can’t be an astronaut. I can’t be. I asked the kids, why do you think I can’t be an astronaut? One of them said, you’re too tall. Some of them said, because you’re an Air Force general. Finally one of them said, no, because you’re wearing glasses. I said that’s right. When I take off my glasses, I probably should have done this earlier, when I take off my glasses I’m legally blind. I can’t see anything. You’re completely gone. All I see is little blue lights, and I don’t even know what those blue lights are because I can’t see them. But there’s no way I could do that.

And then I said I’m going to get in the space business. I’m going to build rockets. I’m going to build that kind of stuff. I’m going to become an engineer. So to become an engineer you’ve got to be good at math and science, so I really got after math and science. And I went through school, and the teachers helped me go through it, and my senior year at Grissom High School Mrs. Spellman who sadly passed away just a couple of years ago, she’s looked at the few of us who had gone all the way through all the classes, and she said, you know, we need calculus here. So Grissom High school, 1977, taught calculus. The first public high school in Alabama to teach calculus. I kind of needed to know that. And then another miracle occurred when I got into Harvard University from Alabama. I got to go to Harvard, and I got to become an engineer.


But when I went to Harvard, there was one problem. Harvard was really expensive and I couldn’t afford to pay for it. My family couldn’t afford to pay for it. So I needed to get a scholarship. The best scholarship at the time that would pay for it was the Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] scholarship, ‘cause it paid for everything – tuition, books, fees, and $100 a month to live on. It was awesome, it was spectacular. And all I owed the Air Force when I graduated was four years of my life.


So when I graduated I just told the Air Force I want to travel the world. I don’t care where I go. This is 1981. There’s no such thing as Space Command, there’s no real space program that’s visible in the Air Force at the time, but I’m going to get out in 1985, and I’m going to go into the space business.


So my first assignment in the United States Air Force – joined the Air Force to see the world… Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Perfect.


But that’s okay. I like Alabama. And I’m going to get out anyway so it’s not a big deal, not a concern, these things happen. I fell in love with the Air Force. And I fell in love with the mission. I was an engineer in Communications Command. I had a little office in Montgomery. And my boss looked at me, because I told everyone I was getting out. But you know what? I worked like the devil. That’s what I was always told to do. I worked like the devil, and son of a gun, my boss saw something in me. And I had a couple of chief master sergeants, saw something in me, and they took me under their wing and they said, if you weren’t such an idiot, I think you could be something in this Air Force. That was amazing. And they taught me. They taught me a lot. They taught me about leadership, and they taught me about taking care of fellow airmen. They taught me about the Air Force.


And holy cow, it came time to get out, and I was ready, everyone knows. My boss said if there’s one thing you could do to stay in the Air Force, what would it be? I said I just want to be in the space business. And I won’t tell you the whole story because we’ll be here all night. But through a series of little miracles, I actually found a job in the space business, and I walked in the space business in 1985. And since that time, the things I’ve gotten to do are just unbelievable.


I’ve been part of the transformation of warfare, where the application of space fundamentally changed warfare forever. Now we know where the enemy is. We can communicate seamlessly. We have navigation systems, intelligence systems. We have capabilities that have changed everything we do on the battlefield. There’s no military operation on the face of the planet that takes place without the integration of the critical space capabilities that we operate. I’ve flown GPS , I’ve flown weather satellites, I’ve flown missile warning satellites and communication satellites. I’ve operated radars, I’ve launched rockets, I’ve launched missiles. And now I’m the commander of the most powerful command in our nation.


It’s impossible. So I want you to think about something. Do you think it’s coincidence that this nation’s military, the United States military, improved space, changed warfare and became the most capable military force on the planet in the decades that came after Apollo? It’s really about that rocket.


The interesting thing about that rocket is everybody that I work with, whether they’re pilots, space guys, missile guys, whoever they are, they all remember that rocket, and they were all excited by Apollo. And they all came in to make a difference. And everybody that I work with in the space business takes the time and learned math and science. And we love this country, and we decided we’re going to make a difference in this world, we’re going to make a difference in this country. We bound together to do that. But it was because of the excitement that was generated by Apollo.


So this is just one of many reasons why we as a nation need to continue to push the envelope, to explore space – to put a human on Mars, and return them safely to the earth. Because when we dream big, big things happen. And we have to do that.


So now we have to talk about what I’m concerned about a little bit. Many have heard me talking about this before. But what I’m concerned about is that somewhere along the way, our country has lost the ability to go fast. We’ve lost the ability to take risks like we used to. And I want to talk about an individual who was as responsible for this rocket as any individual, and of all the names that came up tonight, his name was not mentioned. You hear James Webb, you hear George Mueller, you hear [U.S. Air Force Gen.] Bernard Schriever, but there’s a name that’s critically important to this rocket that I want to talk about because it’s somebody who understood risk.  It was a guy named [Samuel C.] Sam Phillips. The people in this room that know Sam Phillips probably know Sam Phillips because he was the program director for the Apollo program. He was also an Air Force general. An Air Force brigadier general. 


If you’re in the Air Force, what is Sam Phillips also known for? He was the program director for an airplane, that is the B-52 bomber. He was the program director for a missile, that is the Minuteman I ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile]. The B-52 is still around; the Minuteman is still around.


And the first Minuteman that he was responsible for, he was given the task in 1958 to build a new three-stage solid rocket ICBM, put a nuclear weapon on top, and deploy them across five bases in 800 new holes with new command and control capabilities.  And he did that in five years at $2 billion. That $2 billion today might be $17 billion. For that we got 800 new three-stage solid rocket ICBMs. And the way we do business today, the new ground-based strategic deterrent that will replace the Minuteman III. Current cost estimate is $84 billion, first initial capability is 2029, next, final operational capability is 2035.


And that’s not because you don’t have the industry that can do it. We have the industry that can do it because many of the same industry partners that did it back then can do it today. But we have put a bureaucracy in place that is risk averse; will not take risk any more. There is no way a Sam Phillips can exist in the world we live in. There’s no way a Bernard Schriever can live in the world we live in. There’s no way George Mueller can do what he did.


We have to get back to where we take risks, and we take smart risks and we go fast. We have to get back to the place where we give people authority to do what they have to do to respond to the threat. Because right now, if you look at the world, the world’s a very dangerous place. We have adversaries that are going faster than we are in space. How is that possible? We have adversaries that are going faster than us in the missile business. How is that possible? Just a year and a half ago, I was being confirmed in front of the Senate. Some of the questions were, is Kim Jung Un for real? He looks like a fool. He just launches and blow things up. And I remember back when I was a young person in this business, we launched things and blew them up too. But guess what? We learned from our mistakes. We learned every time we made mistakes, and we were able to go fast because we did that.


I remember when I was a young engineer in this business, I wanted to grow up and be a colonel. I didn’t want to grow up and be a general. I wanted to grow up and be a colonel who was the program director. I wanted to be Sam Phillips. I didn’t want to be Gen. Schriever.  Because, the colonels had all the power and all the authority to make the decisions. Now they don’t have any authority. They spend all their time in Washington trying to get through a bureaucracy that is just brutal. We need to give them the authority to allow them to go fast. If we do that the world will be a better place, and this country will be a better place.


So you missed the last part of the video. I’m going to share it with you, the last part of the video. The last part of the video is just about our people. There’s 184,000 Americans today that are doing the missions of Strategic Command. Deployed under the seas, under the ground, in the air, operating in space, operating in cyber space, missile defense in Alaska, missile defense in California, electronic warfare, analysis and targeting, intelligence. That’s the mission of this command.  But it’s the people that do it.


And the interesting thing about the people is that at the end of the day, they’re all there for the same reason, because they all raise their hand and do the same thing I do. They raise their hand and swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States. And it’s different than anywhere else on the planet. Everywhere else on the planet they swear an oath to the crown, to an individual, to somebody. But in this country, we swear an oath to an ideal. 


So here’s how the words go. I, John Earl Hyten, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. And I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I’m about to enter. And all 184,000 people say an oath like that when they come to work.


I love the fact that we swear an oath to a set of ideals written down on a piece of paper by our forefathers. These ideals are what being an American is all about. These ideals drove generations of Americans to strive for excellence and overcome whatever the adversary brought to bear against our homeland and our allies. As we work with the next generation, as we work with those 400 middle schoolers from Marshall County and from Madison County, from the state of Alabama, and across this country, we have to encourage new ideas. We have to encourage speed and innovation. We have to empower them to make their decisions. We can’t take that away from them. We have to push it back down the way it was when we did everything that you see in this room. And if we do, I’m confident we can change the culture. We can adapt to the speed of the modern world. Because I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, the race is not over. It has just begun.


Thank you very much.