On December 20th the United States founded a new and controversial branch of the US military, the United States Space Force, or USSF. Despite its absurd-sounding name, the USSF is a logical step both in terms of the United States’ defense capabilities and for the development of the space industry. While President Trump is being credited for pushing its creation, the reality is that the concept of a “Space Force” had been on the table for some time.
The expansion of the military beyond the more traditional “Army” and “Navy” divisions is certainly not without precedent. Indeed, the last time that the military gained a new branch was in 1947 with the creation of the United States Air Force, or USAF. The USAF was created decades after rockets, fighter jets, bombers….etc had already been deployed in warfare. It made logical sense to separate the command structure for a distinct type of warfare as compared to the Navy, Marines, and Army. The creation of the USAF also made it easier to focus on technological, financial, and human resources into the aerospace field.
The Space Force is certainly not all that different in this context. Like the air force in 1947, space has been vital to warfare for decades. Space satellites have been used for reconnaissance, global positioning, and mapping, communications…etc. The protection and continued advancement of these systems require new ways of thinking, new technology, and better allocation of resources. We might think of it this way: the air force is a command structure for those systems that operate inside the Earth’s atmosphere, the space-force will command everything that operates in the vacuum of space. Very different realms of physics are at play, much akin to the difference between land, water, and air.
Logic and historical precedent are not the only reasons I support the creation of the Space Force. I also, regretfully, admit that human nature seems to be motivated more by war than by peace. If we look back throughout history, many of the technologies that exist today that we take for granted, at some level, were the result of innovations developed for defense purposes. The internet itself is a great example, which traces its roots back to a decentralized computer system that was pioneered in the 1960s by the US Department of Defense. The first true microprocessor, the ancestor to what powers your phone, tablet, or computer, the MP944, was developed for the F-14 Tomcat jet fighter. The GPS system that electronics rely on for mapping is also born out of the defense industry, as is the jet technology that powered your jet on your last vacation. This list goes on and on.
I do not believe that we should ever desire that space becomes the battleground in the future, but we should recognize that if the militarization of space will spur innovation in space technology, that is overall a good thing. New propulsion systems, lighter and more durable heat shields, more reliable life support systems, long term fuel storage tanks, reusable rockets….etc are all desperately needed if humanity is to become a space-fairing civilization.
Additionally, the USSF can have a positive role outside the realm of warfare. The force could also be used for orbital debris cleanup, cleaning up debris that threatens its own operations and the operation of civilian spacecraft and satellites. The Space Force could also have a role in developing the technologies and techniques required to protect against potentially devastating asteroid impacts.
Asteroid impacts have happened in the past and they will happen again. A large asteroid impact could very conceivably wipe out human civilization. It makes sense to prepare for such an event as early as possible. Even if not arising from an asteroid impact, a human extinction event is inevitable at some point, and we should make some effort at mitigating this risk by becoming a space-faring civilization. The creation of the Space Force might mark a turning point where, for the first time, spaceflight technology will finally get the attention that it deserves.