Nov 10, 2020 - Science

The Space Force heads to space

Illustration of an astronaut as a plastic army toy

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The U.S. Space Force is slated to swear in its first officer in space just as the scope and mission of the military’s newest branch are being defined.

Why it matters: The Space Force — one of President Trump's major space policy initiatives — will continue to be shaped by a new administration with potentially different ideas about how to protect U.S. national security in space.

State of play: NASA astronaut and Air Force colonel Mike Hopkins is expected to launch to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX capsule on Saturday with three other crew members.

  • It's not yet clear when Hopkins will be sworn in to the Space Force or what the ceremony will look like from orbit.
  • He will be the first astronaut to join the service.

The big picture: The commissioning is happening as the White House is in transition and the military branch is crafting its own identity.

  • The Space Force is often depicted as a publicity stunt from the Trump administration, while others in the space industry see it as a useful and necessary way of prioritizing national security in space.
  • But even supporters worry the politicization and Trump's branding of the new military branch is keeping people from understanding its vital mission.

What they're saying: The Space Force sees the commissioning "as a way to spotlight the decades-long partnership between DoD [the Department of Defense] and NASA," Col. Catie Hague, a Space Force spokesperson, told Space News.

  • But some space watchers see the plan to commission Hopkins as a further distraction from the Space Force's core mission.
  • The new branch of the military is supposed to protect assets in orbit and keep an eye on threats to critical infrastructure like GPS satellites. NASA, on the other hand, is a civil agency focused on exploration and science.
  • "The skill sets that you need to be an astronaut is totally different than the skill set you need to be a space operator in the Space Force," Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, adding this high-profile commissioning runs the risk of conflating two very different missions.

The commissioning could also send conflicting messages to NASA's partners aboard the station.

  • NASA's international partners may be taken aback by the commissioning — a show of military force — happening on the station, which is built on diplomatic, not military power, according to Kaitlyn Johnson, also of CSIS.

What to watch: The Space Force's public-facing strategy may also change under a Joe Biden presidency.

  • It's possible the Space Force will be treated like other branches of the military and left to do its work.
  • And while most think the new service will not be dismantled under Biden, experts warn the Space Force still needs to justify its existence and be taken seriously by members of the public.
  • "The Space Force needs to prove its value and prove it was not just some whim of an idea by President Trump," Harrison said.
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