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NASA administrator throws support behind Trump's 'Space Force'

Illustration of Uncle Sam in spacesuit.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine threw his support behind President Trump's proposed "Space Force" as a new branch of the armed services in an interview with Axios this week.

Why it matters: While NASA is a civilian space agency dedicated to scientific research and space exploration and a Space Force wouldn't be its purview, the agency's leader — himself a former Navy fighter pilot — is endorsing what some see as a step toward the further militarization of space. Bridenstine, however, says it's a necessary move to protect the core interests of the U.S. as well as NASA's assets.

Bridenstine described space as an increasingly competitive environment where America is strategically vulnerable.

"When you think about the history of this, people have forever believed that space was a sanctuary and it is not. It is becoming more contested, more congested and more competitive than ever before. And in order to preserve space, we have to be willing to defend it."
— NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

The context: Last week, President Trump announced he is directing the Pentagon to establish a Space Force branch of the U.S. military, on par with the Air Force. Bridenstine, who flew F-18 fighter planes in the Navy before being elected to Congress from Oklahoma, supported a bill to form a space corps. That bill, however, would not have created a separate service branch of the military, but rather a new entity within the Air Force.

Having NASA behind the Space Force could hasten its creation. The Pentagon has said it will study the president's proposal, and consult Congress, which ultimately would have to pass a bill to create such a space entity. In the meantime, Space Force has become a meme online and a rallying cry among the President's base.

The threat: Citing intelligence that the Chinese and Russians are developing capabilities to target U.S. satellites, Bridenstine said: "And it is not just direct ascent anti-satellite missiles. It's co-orbital anti-satellite capabilities, it's jamming, it's dazzling, it's spoofing, it's hacking — all of these threats are proliferating at a pace we have never seen before, and the Chinese are calling space the American Achilles' heel."

Bridenstine, who serves on the National Space Council headed by Vice President Pence, said America is an increasingly space-dependent nation, mentioning navigation, communications, food and energy production, weather prediction, climate monitoring, disaster relief and national security as relying on satellites.

The big picture: The Trump administration has proposed ending federal funding for the International Space Station sometime after 2024. The objective, says Bridenstine, is for the commercial sector to operate in low-earth orbit apart from NASA so that the agency can push further out to the Moon or Mars, "where commercial isn't quite ready or willing to go based on return on investment."

He envisions a market made up of companies— he cited the pharmaceutical and fiber optics industries as two that could be among the first customers for the ISS — and nation-states with their own space ambitions.

What it means: Bridenstine emphasized that any Space Force would be the Defense Department's domain.

"Now this isn't NASA's role, it isn't NASA's function, but I think it is important to note that the NASA administrator supports our astronauts and billion-dollar-plus investments being protected," Bridenstine said.

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