For people of a certain age, the word ‘sputnik’ means little or nothing. But in its day, it shocked the world. For the uninitiated, the word is Russian for ‘traveling companion of the earth.’ But in 1957, it was more than a simple word. Sputnik was the world’s first foreign object to orbit the planet. It launched the space age and the space race.
Today what might remain of this revolutionary satellite---which was not much larger than a beachball---orbits the planet along with untold numbers of artificial objects and another 8,000 tons of extraterrestrial flotsam and jetsam, rocket remnants, satellite parts, manmade debris; essentially, space age trash. But who knows what might one day join in this orbiting parade of mysterious stuff?
President Trump thinks that the best way to get ahead of this vexing question is to form what he calls a Space Force. He wants to establish an autonomous military branch whose mission is outer space. “Space is a war-fighting domain,” he said last Spring in announcing his desire to create this new military branch. Space, he said, is “just like the land, sea and air.” And, like land, sea and air, it needs defending and monitoring.
How much the creation of a new branch of the military might cost and how it would affect the already existing U.S. Space Command remain unknown. Would it deplete current assets? Duplicate missions? What is the timetable for its launch? At this moment, a Space Force remains nothing more than an idea. But also, one with as many detractors as supporters.
“I don’t think Trump looked into this or knows much about it,” said former astronaut and current academic Terry Hart. Hart, who flew aboard the Challenger and logged nearly 170 hours (then a record) in space, now teaches Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Lehigh University.
The decorated Air Force officer and astronaut believes creating an entirely new branch of the military when the nation already has the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Space Command would be costly and a duplication of effort. “The whole concept of creating another branch does not make any sense.”
But others, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perhaps America’s most famous astrophysicist and Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, thinks the idea deserves more consideration before dismissing it. “Just because it came out of Trump’s mouth doesn’t mean it’s a crazy idea,” said in a recent interview.
Tyson said the country is invested in space both technologically and strategically. “The idea of a space force is not, uh, fundamentally odd when you consider that the Army---70 years ago---birthed the Air Force.” The pop culture scientist added, “Assets in space are of incalculable value.”
Tyson also thinks that a Space Force might serve as an early warning system in the event a catastrophic occurrence, like an unknown meteor, happens again. He points to a moment 65 million years when it happened in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A meteor hit with such force that it wiped out the dinosaurs and much of the planet’s lifeforms.
Trump has put Vice President Pence in charge of handling the details of the Space Force. While no costs, no personnel numbers or final mission statement have been shared publicly, the administration is expected to unveil both in a 2020 budget statement.
While the President touts his idea as a deterrent to foreign powers using space as a platform for future warfare, Hart thinks the 1996 Outer Space Treaty adopted by the United Nations has already addressed this contingency. The Treaty has 107 signatories and forms the basis for international space law.
Included in the treaty are provisions that state that exploration of space shall be carried out for the benefit and interests of all countries; that space is the province of mankind; that it is not subject to national appropriation; that no weapons can be placed in orbit or on any celestial bodies or station them in outer space.
But the U.S., Russia and, now, China may be playing semantic games in honoring the treaty. All three have satellites and telescopes---whose missions are both known and unknown---already fixed in the ‘next frontier.’ Most recently, China landed an unmanned craft on the dark side of the moon during the first week of 2019. Japan also has plans for a manned space mission sometime in 2025. Canada, England and France also have their own space programs and agencies.
Supporters and critics on both sides of a Space Force are still waiting for something concrete from the Pentagon. Will a Space Force ultimately stand alone, or will it be integrated into an existing organization like the country’s Space Command? In an age when the planet’s Global Positioning System (GPS) along with untold assets---military and civilian---are already ensconced in space and intentions of friends and foes are uncertain, it seems unlikely that this idea will either gather dust or just be forgotten.
Watch this space.