Last month, Army Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, said in a talk that the Space Force should work more closely with the Navy. He is right. On a long enough timeline, Space Force culture will bifurcate, with some of the service branch adopting an Air Force mentality, and most of it going full-bore Navy.
The question is whether by adopting a Navy mindset now, we might accelerate the maturity not only of the Space Force, but of human exploration of the solar system.
NO NEED FOR A SPACE FORCE, BUT…
Presently, there is little reason for a Space Force to exist. As I have written previously at ClearanceJobs, the sorts of cultural factors that made manifest the need to separate the Air Force from the Army did not exist when politicians pried the Space Force from the Air Force. If the course of events had taken place patiently, an organizing purpose for the Space Force might have emerged organically, and the only outstanding questions of note might be uniforms, rank, and which bases should be renamed. But it was the will of Congress and the White House, and that was that.
We have this shiny new Space Force in the garage, and no idea where to drive it.
Space Force guardians are doing today the same things that the Air Force was doing three years ago, the primary difference being the nametapes on their OCPs. The Space Force portfolio includes missile detection, rocket launches, orbital asset protection, GPS development, and encrypted satellite communications—worthy goals, all, but very “Air Force” sorts of goals when there’s an entire inky black ocean to set sail on.
Thus, we are led to ask: What do we want in a Space Force? If the long-term goal is that status quo, the prudent move is to reabsorb the Space Force into its parent branch and save some money, because the status quo was already being served.
Since we went through the trouble of making our very own Space Force, however, and since we must give it purpose, why not go all the way? Which is where the Navy comes in.
A short-term, paradigm-shifting goal of the Space Force should be to use space for fast global transit of personnel and supplies. Specifically: Service members could transit any two points on the planet in less than one hour. Such a resupply capability would also help the Defense Department achieve total mastery of safe, rapid, manned rocket launches, and would likely necessitate the expansion of launch facilities coast to coast, and strategically, around the world.
Presently, the Air Force, under Space Force oversight, is studying that very ability using reusable commercial rockets. This is something Elon Musk of SpaceX has been talking about for a long time. If his company’s Starship rockets are able to send crews and cargo to the moon and Mars, why can’t they replace transatlantic aircraft? It takes about seven hours, presently, to fly from New York to London. Starship could do it in 30 minutes.
That is exciting—just let the enlisted job of Starship loadmaster sink in for a bit. It also helps make the notion of non-astronaut service members in space seem somehow routine. Culturally, that is a vital step on the Space Force’s path to a Navy-like presence in space. If, after all, the Space Force proves adept at moving crew and cargo from point to point on Earth, why stop there?
Here is the state of human spaceflight. No one under the age of 20 has known a single second of his or her life without a human being in space. Presently, NASA plans to build a space station in orbit around the moon, called Gateway, and eventually establish a permanently manned moon base. SpaceX is developing its Starship superheavy reusable rockets with the goal of building a “transcontinental railroad” to Mars.
Meanwhile, China has a robust lunar program, has been landing spacecraft and robots on the moon regularly since 2013, and successfully returned samples of the moon last year. They are good at exploring the moon, and they are open about their human spaceflight ambitions. NASA hasn’t soft-landed a single atom on the moon since the Apollo program.
If you had to bet on two entities achieving their goals, it would be SpaceX and China. Which means the next humans to trod upon the dust of the moon will be taikonauts, while NASA, trapped in an “old space” mindset (Gateway is, generously speaking, a corporate moondoggle), remains marooned in low-Earth orbit. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, this would be great if NASA wished to bypass the moon entirely in favor of Mars, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Rather, the U.S. seems eager to get into a Space Race with China, and is almost certain to lose. In short, NASA no longer knows how to get to or land on the lunar surface, has no money to pay for it in any event, and even if it did, astronauts would not be able to open the hatch, because there are no space suits for them to wear.
A NAVY WAY FORWARD
Here is where a Navy mindset for the Space Force comes into play. There is a robust case to be made for the Space Force to supplement civilian space exploration. For starters, there is no such thing as civilian space exploration. Most astronauts are members of the military, and NASA’s launch providers and spacecraft manufacturers are, by and large, the same people building missiles and weapons systems for the Defense Department. Anyone pretending there is an impenetrable firewall between NASA Headquarters and the Pentagon is either delusional or disingenuous. The only reason we even have a space program was the need in the 1950s to demonstrate our ability to land nuclear warheads in Eastern Europe.
The Space Force is the boost NASA needs to help humans again walk on the moon. (I’m not saying the Defense Department is a good steward of tax dollars. But I am saying they have so many tax dollars that they can actually afford to be wasteful.) Moreover, a Space Force Corps of Engineers could be stood up to build bases and structures on the moon and Mars. (Again, the astronauts that next land on the moon, and the first to land on Mars, just as in the Apollo program, will likely be servicemembers. Only a single civilian has ever walked on the Moon. None of this is new.)
A Space Force with a Navy mindset means continuous, permanent crews for orbital research and development centers so that scientists can come and go without first having to learn advanced astronautical engineering.
ON TO MARS
It takes between 400 to 600 days to travel roundtrip between Earth and Mars. If such travel becomes a reality, disciplined crews will be needed. They will need experience maintaining good order and morale when there is precisely nothing to do or see from horizon to horizon. Moreover, such ships would necessarily have to be powered by nuclear reactors. The Navy nuclear submarine fleet is the platonic ideal of all this. The lessons learned by Navy’s dominance of the seas applies very nicely to long duration space travel.
Indeed, it is hard to figure out how the U.S. could build a permanent human presence on the moon or Mars without a significant Space Force infusion of direct dollars (e.g.: DOD will buy the nuclear reactors), personnel (e.g.: Guardians will run the dozens—if not hundreds—of launches necessary to build even a modest base), and research and development investments (e.g.: DOD will scale the reactors, develop surface infrastructure, orbital stations, and ferry fleets).
In three years, the Space Force budget has grown to $17.4 billion. NASA, in 63 years, has managed to reach only $24.8 billion. Which organization do you think will have a larger budget 10 years from now? It won’t be a small lead, either.
IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN
None of this means Starship Troopers. Indeed, it will require guarding specifically against such an outcome from occurring. (Though I confess that the notion of a conflict on Mars is grimly appealing if only because it means people will be on Mars!) There is no reason for a single bullet or ray gun to ever leave the surface of the Earth. This is about applying military logistics expertise and bottomless resources to a seemingly intractable problem, with the happy side effect of projecting and maintaining U.S. soft power on the moon and beyond.
If humankind is to become multiplanetary, whether 10 years from now or 100 years from now, the Defense Department will eventually be a part of it. The U.S. can leverage the Space Force as a tool to accelerate progress. The nascent branch will need a Navy mindset and the unique skillset cultivated by centuries on the high seas, it is poised to do just that. Our newest branch does not yet have a real purpose. Here is a chance to give it one for the benefit of all mankind.