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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

At first, White House officials thought the idea of Space Force was just a lark. A former senior official told me that through most of last year Trump was generally interested in space.

Behind the scenes: He would ask random questions about rocket ships and marvel to hear about satellites and the junk floating around in space. His questions were unfocused, like a student trying to learn about a new subject. "It was just one of those subjects that piqued his interest," the source said.

But early this year, Trump became more fixated on space and floated "Space Force" as an off-the-cuff idea. Staff didn't take the idea seriously at first, and Defense Secretary James Mattis was not a fan, but Trump kept insisting on it.

He floated the idea publicly in March when he spoke to military personnel in San Diego. "You know, I was saying it the other day, because we're doing a tremendous amount of work in space, I said maybe we need a new force, we'll call it the Space Force," he told the crowd. "And I was not really serious. And then I said what a great idea, maybe we'll have to do that."

Why this matters: Space "is becoming a contested war-fighting domain, and we have to adapt to that reality," said Mattis in Thursday's announcement at the Pentagon.

  • Russia and China are building anti-satellite weapons that could shoot down American satellites within two or three years, according to the U.S. intelligence community. This would undermine the U.S. military's ability to keep watch over its adversaries and track American troops using GPS coordinates. 

A key cabinet meeting came in March, where Vice President Mike Pence — who chairs the National Space Council — gave an update on space issues. Arrayed before Trump on the table in the meeting room were models of commercial rocket ships, including one from Elon Musk’s private rocket company SpaceX. Trump was delighted, according to a source in the room.

  • "Rich guys, they love rocket ships," Trump told the group. "And that's good. That's better than us paying for it."

Behind the scenes: After that meeting Trump began talking about the idea more insistently with officials including Pence, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

  • Trump told Pence to get it done. Pence has long been interested in space, especially from military and commercial perspectives.

What's next? Whether a Space Force happens or not is still in Congress' hands. And senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, have expressed reservations about it. Mattis is warming to the idea, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker