Two and a half years ago, surrounded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the East Room of the White House, President Trump promised American dominance in space: “Very importantly, I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. That’s a big statement.”
Most people thought he was kidding, including TV producers who turned the idea into a sitcom.
But the president’s dream became a reality. The Space Force became the sixth branch of the military last year.
This weekend, Air Force Colonel Mike Hopkins will become the first astronaut to join the Space Force. He and three others will travel to the International Space Station, where he’ll be formally sworn in.
Miriam Kramer, space reporter for Axios, says the Space Force is responsible for keeping track of and maintaining access to U.S. assets in space for national security.
“If you're thinking of something like GPS satellites, spy satellites, they are responsible for effectively maintaining that we have the high ground, and that those assets are safe in orbit and can be used and accessed anytime we need them,” she says.
In the past, the U.S. Air Force did this work.
So why have another military branch? Kramer says many people in the industry believe that countries — including China, Russia and possibly even the U.S. — use space for war, so it’s a good idea to have a force dedicated to it.
The argument against it: This overemphasizes the idea that the U.S. needs a military presence in space, and it tells other nations that they can have one too and that space should be weaponized and should be militarized.
So what does it mean to have Hopkins sworn into the Space Force at the International Space Station (ISS), which is supposed to be seen as a non-politicized place?
“The ISS is a place where it's all about diplomatic power, not military power. So the message that this is sending is sort of murky. It's like, what are our international partners going to think when an astronaut is sworn into this sort of bizarre-sounding thing called the Space Force that not everyone is totally sure how it works yet? So the force is still kind of defining itself,” she says.
Kramer says she thinks the Space Force will outlast the Trump administration and that President-elect Joe Biden will keep it.
“It is the butt of a lot of jokes. But it's also extremely useful. It's useful for people in the industry, it's useful for warfighters if the Space Force is sort of left to kind of do its job. And my sources say that it's going to be an essential part of our military,” she says. “And I think it would be very difficult to kind of get rid of it at this point. … I think that the Biden administration … should likely keep it around, but maybe not overemphasize the publicity of it quite so much.”
Biden doesn’t talk about space much, says Kramer, but getting Americans back to the moon will likely stay a priority for NASA, and it might be done by 2028. She adds that NASA’s work with climate change is going to be important in a Biden administration too.
— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski