When the Trump administration first proposed the Space Force as the sixth branch of the United States military in June 2018, many people were undecided whether the idea was an atrocity or a joke. On the atrocity side, some analysts believed that the Space Force constituted a dangerous plan to militarize space. On the joke side, social media became littered with images from Star Wars and Star Trek. Netflix even greenlit a “workplace comedy” called “Space Force.”
The United States Space Force transitioned from joke to reality recently when the House authorized its establishment as part of a defense authorization bill. Remarkably, a considerable number of Democrats voted for the bill that contained the Space Force. They did so in return for a provision that allowed for a 12-week family leave for federal workers. Thus, a space-faring, war-fighting military service was born, thanks to good, old-fashioned backroom wheeling and dealing.
More importantly, the Space Force became a reality with the help of Democrats who at the same time were hell bent in impeaching the president who proposed and championed it in the first place.
The United States Space Force is starting out modestly. Personnel to fill out its organization will have to be recruited. The Space Force will have to develop what it needs to accomplish its main mission of keeping the peace in space. Its goal is to not just become a force that can wage war beyond the Earth but to deter war, to demonstrate to enemies of the United States that attacking its space assets would be folly. A space war with both sides attacking the satellites of the other would be catastrophic for both parties. The Space Force will be an expression of peace through strength. It will develop ways to defend against attacks on America’s space infrastructure while placing that of an enemy at risk of destruction.
In the long term, the Space Force will become the third leg of a triad that includes NASA and commercial space companies. The space triad will ensure that the United States and her allies dominate the economic development, scientific exploration and human expansion into space.
NASA will continue its mission of space exploration, scientific study and technological development that will further the vision of the United States as a space faring nation. The Artemis program will return humans to the moon, this time to stay. Eventually, astronauts will land on Mars as a first step to making that planet a new home for human civilization. Robotic probes will continue to ferret out the secrets of the solar system and beyond.
Meanwhile, the private sector will continue to oversee the economic development of space. Private spacecraft that will take humans and cargo to and from factories in low Earth orbit, bases on the moon, settlements on Mars and mining facilities on the asteroids will evolve with increasing range and capabilities. Commercial companies will manufacture products in space and mine the moon and the asteroids for their mineral wealth.
The United States Space Force will ensure that no unfriendly power can impede these activities through military attack. The new service branch will have to be so strong and capable that no other country would think of trying to bring fire and destruction to American and allied space infrastructure.
The United States Space Force, as an operational service branch, could take on two other related missions.
The Space Force could start the process of cleaning up orbiting space debris. Decades of dead satellites and other junk have created a ring around our planet that is increasingly becoming a hazard to space navigation. Even the International Space Station must, from time to time, alter its orbit a little to avoid being hit by space junk.
The Space Force can also defend the planet from a threat that does not come from any human agency, but nature. The prospect of an asteroid or comet hitting the Earth with such devastating effect that it ends human civilization or even life itself is very real.
If the Space Force can put assets in place to prevent an Earth-approaching object from ending the human species, it will have justified any effort and expense to create and maintain it.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.