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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.

Go deeper

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Nov 19, 2020 - Economy & Business

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

WeWork is turning into Uber.

The big picture: The rise of remote work has been disastrous for WeWork, which placed a hugely expensive bet on offices. Now the company is trying to find its place in the future of work by making its office space available on demand.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Key government agency says Biden transition can formally begin

General Services Administrator Emily Murphy. Photo: Alex Edelman/CNP/Getty Images

General Services Administrator Emily Murphy said in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden on Monday that she has determined the transition from the Trump administration can formally begin.

Why it matters: Murphy, a Trump appointee, had come under fire for delaying the so-called "ascertainment" and withholding the funds and information needed for the transition to begin while Trump's legal challenges played out.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Key information about the effective COVID-19 vaccines — Oxford and AstraZeneca's vaccine won't just go to rich countries.
  2. Health: U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations keep breaking recordsWhy we're numb to 250,000 deaths.
  3. World: England to impose stricter regional systemU.S. hotspots far outpacing Europe's — Portugal to ban domestic travel for national holidays.
  4. Economy: The biggest pandemic labor market drags.
  5. Sports: Coronavirus precautions leave college basketball schedule in flux.

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