Congress Routinely Calls for a Space Force, But This Time They Mean It
A tiny flying saucer no larger than a tractor tire lands on the roof of a remote cabin. The year is somewhere around 1900. It is night. A woman lives there alone, dressed in rags and apparently poor, and she investigates this terrifying invader. A ramp lowers from the spacecraft, and two beings, inches tall, emerge wearing spacesuits. They fire lasers at the frightened woman, burning her. She flees into her cabin, and they follow her. They stalk her. She catches one, wraps it in a blanket, and desperate, beats it to death. She chases the other, which climbs back into its flying saucer. She begins hitting the craft with the only weapon she can find—a hatchet. Within, the creature radios to anyone in range: Stay away from this world—there are giants here and they cannot be stopped. Written on the side of the spacecraft: U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1.
You have just entered The Twilight Zone. That episode, titled “The Invaders,” premiered in 1961—two years before humans would reach space. An earlier episode—indeed, the show’s debut—depicted an intense psychological test for the first men would would go to the moon. How would they possibly deal with the loneliness? was the haunting message. This was two years before President Kennedy’s moonshot speech, and the episode didn’t even mention the word “astronaut,” which was only recently coined and scarcely known. Nor did it mention the troubled federal agency called NASA, whose rockets kept blowing up. No, this would-be moon explorer was simply identified as an Air Force pilot.
It is hard to know or appreciate how people understood human space exploration before Yuri Gagarin’s flight, but the Twilight Zone gives us some idea. It is inevitable, seemed the thinking. It is fantastic. It is as perilous psychologically as it is physically. And it is spearheaded by the U.S. Air Force.
Earlier this year, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama called for the creation of a Space Corps within the U.S. Air Force, much in the way the Marine Corps is part of the Navy. He said that the corps would be a precursor to a fully realized and co-equal branch of the U.S. military—the world’s first Space Force. Rogers is the chair of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, which makes his specificity worth noting. Consider that the Air Force was born as the Army Air Corps. After proving its value in World War II (as the Army Air Forces) and developing a military culture distinct of the Army, the Air Force was made official as a branch of its own. It took 21 years from start to finish, and the road was fraught with bureaucratic maneuvering and turf wars between branches, but it worked and was codified by the National Security Act of 1947. The speech by Rogers, then—which dismissed ongoing Pentagon efforts to address space deficiencies—was a declaration that this is going to happen, and it’s time to begin the painful process.
The whole thing might have vanished from the national conversation had not the House gone on to include the proposal in its defense authorization act, with a deadline of 2019 to set up this new military branch. Suddenly, this proposal has fire behind it.
This is not the first time the notion of a Space Force has entered the political conversation. Since Sputnik, the idea of some sort of space navy—a real life Starfleet—has been all but a foregone conclusion not only by fiction writers, but by policymakers. Though contemporary history has largely forgotten George W. Bush’s pre-9/11 policy goals, a chief motivation for bringing Donald Rumsfeld on as secretary of defense was his work leading an independent commission that recommended significant organizational changes in the U.S. military to better position it for space warfare.
The commission’s report has aged relatively well, and among its key assertions:
We know from history that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the U.S. must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space. This will require superior space capabilities.
This sounds an awful lot like a justification for a space branch of the armed services, and hints at capabilities that place a new breed of airmen (spacemen?) on alert, ready to scramble to space to stop some nebulous threat to our warfighting abilities. Indeed, the committee recommends the very same thing called for by Rogers: the establishment of a space corps within the U.S. Air Force. Does this mean an eventual squadron of X-Wing starfighters, a U.S. flag decal beneath the cockpit? In the near-term, not likely. But the Air Force from inception has been a pilot-led, pilot-privileged branch of the service, despite its demographics: a mere four percent of the Air Force are pilots.
This is one reason the service has been so resistant to autonomous aircraft. Are the same officers who fight vehemently against a drone fleet likely to support a robot fleet in space? Or will they see the need for humans to strap on X-Wings of their own? History answers this question. Though the Mercury space capsules were successfully operated by monkeys, the Mercury astronauts, pilots every one, demanded controls, and insisted that the name “capsule” be retired in favor of the more impressive term “spacecraft.”
If not for 9/11 and the sudden shift of U.S. military posture, the Air Corps model would have us five years away from such a branch of the service. Bearing that in mind, had the call for a Space Force previous to Rumsfeld’s been heeded, we might have one in place today! In 1983, a report from the General Accounting Office recommended the deployment of a “’constellation of laser battle stations in space.” The idea was to use these Star Wars weapons as a missile defense shield, and Congress wanted action sooner than later. Frustrated by the Pentagon’s foot-dragging in the matter, a classified version of the report recommended the establishment of an Aerospace Force, or a new Space Force.
It goes back even further. In 1966, the commander of Air Force Systems Command gave a detailed presentation to the annual convention of the Air Force Association in which he called for a fundamental rethinking about how we approach space. The speech both sought to reign in the notion of spaceflight as a civilian endeavor, and to lay out the challenges the U.S. military in its current incarnation faced against a spacefaring (and a highly successful one, at that) Soviet Union. He argued that while a military space program should use both robotic and crewed vessels, in perfect Air Force fashion, he added, “More emphasis on manned spacecraft is required… the unique abilities of man to observe and to use judgment are essential. The most important is the ability of man to exercise control based on his judgement.”
Another speaker at the conference—a member of Congress—sharpened the point. “We already have a formidable capacity available to us as we face the Russian challenge. Our soldiers have learned to live dug into the Arctic ice pack for months on end,” said Rep. Emilio Daddario of Connecticut, who then served on the House science subcommittee that oversaw the Apollo program. He explained that the Army’s experience in austere living applied perfectly to the moon.
He continued, “Similarly, the Navy’s experience in submarine work, where men live and operate in close environments, is the most valuable to research. The test on long undersea voyages with an atomic submarine is comparable to experiences that will be undergone in space travel.” The Air Force, he said, “has put man through the stresses of extremes of temperatures, speed and endurance. Space is a natural challenge for the Air Force, and the targets of the Moon, Mars, and Venus are logical steps in the conquest of this frontier.” While he did not outright call for a Space Force, the implication was clear: draw from the unique capabilities and experiences of existing military branches and assemble something new that might counter the Soviet threat.
The issue, then, is whether efforts by Rep. Rogers today are any more pressing than the calls by government officials 16, 34, or 51 years ago? Certainly, American military assets in space are vital to the nation’s warfighting ability, and have been so since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when orbital assets were employed to do everything from surveillance to weather forecasting. Were an enemy force to target and destroy a mission-critical American satellite, it could mean catastrophe on the battlefield. That’s not hypothetical threat, either. Jeanette Hanna-Ruiz, chief information security officer of NASA, said it’s only a matter of time before one of our satellites falls victim to a cyberattack. In 2007, China shot down one of its own satellites—a provocative move with a clear message to adversaries.
No part of the American military arsenal is independent of space. The loss of communications, global positioning, or reconnaissance might leave soldiers, sailors, and airmen vulnerable in ways impossible to imagine. Consider what happens when you forget your phone at home before going to work. A feeling of helplessness sometimes take hold. You don’t have Waze routing you through traffic. You can’t chat with friends. You can’t listen to music or see what’s happening in the news. Translate that sense of loss for trivial problems to combat, where you’re being targeted by hostile forces and the loss of “connectivity” means a greater chance of a grisly death. Yes, space is more important than ever.
And there is the fantastical element, too, of course. The whole topic begs for science fiction scenarios. Within our lifetimes, the U.S. and China will be able to build crewed lunar colonies. When that day comes, if war breaks out on Earth between the two nations, do hostilities extend to those colonies? The Outer Space Treaty prohibits the militarization of space, but withdrawal from the treaty is as simple as a one years’ notice to the United Nations. We should hope weapons of war never leave Earth, but should a power choose to do so, it’s hard to see objections by Myanmar to the UN assembly making much difference.
Even today, the efforts of SpaceX to settle Mars, and of industry to mine the moon, don’t bother even paying lip service to the treaty. Space, as the Twilight Zone taught us fifty years ago, is inevitable. We’re now landing rocket boosters on barges and at Kennedy Space Center, and it remains hard, but it is at last within our grasp. Of course the military must adapt to this new reality. We all must. One day some heir to U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1 will be our own.