Would a Space Force mean the end of NASA?

October 18, 2018 by Wendy Whitman Cobb, The Conversation
President Eisenhower addressing a joint session of Congress in 1958. Behind the president are Vice President Richard Nixon, left, and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, right. Credit: NASA

Space, that final frontier, is something that catches the attention of a country naturally inclined to believe in ideas like "Manifest Destiny" and American exceptionalism. But how well does a Space Force fit that bill? And would a Space Force reignite a military space race and fuel diplomatic tensions with China and Russia?

Growing up in Florida, I was lucky enough to watch shuttle launches with something that resembled regularity. As I got older and first learned about the history of NASA, its exploits during the Space Race and then its challenges, I never lost the sense of wonder at what NASA could do. I also gained an appreciation for the difficulties it had to overcome in order to reach those achievements. I've turned this interest into an academic career studying the politics of space, science and medicine.

NASA's influence is clearly seen in these other fields as well as in our everyday lives. Technologies developed to allow space exploration have led to such consumer innovations as scratch-resistant lenses and CAT scans. Our cellphones would not be possible without the miniaturization of chips during the Apollo program or military GPS satellites. Given these benefits, we often forget the difficult nature of spaceflight and the resources required to accomplish it.

Indeed, examining the experiences and political lessons of NASA reveals the difficulties of establishing a new government agency and launching an organization whose job is to do hard things at a high cost. Looking at the ups and downs of NASA's history shows us that there are potential benefits domestically but that they could come with greater international risk.

What is a Space Force, and what would it do anyway?

While at a rally in March this year, President Donald Trump first mentioned the idea of a Space Force. Since then, the president has both tweeted about the idea and directed the Pentagon to develop a plan to create an independent sixth branch of the military. Responding to the president's directives, the Pentagon released a report in August. Although the report was labeled as "final," its 15 pages are short on detail, long on talking points, and light on details on why there needs to be a Space Force.

The White House and Congress have been considering the idea for some time. During the debate over the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, members of the House Armed Services Committee inserted a provision establishing a "Space Corps." The proposed Space Corps was to be housed within the Air Force but the provision was later removed during House-Senate negotiations because of objections from both the White House and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Although he has expressed support for a Space Force now, Mattis originally opposed it over budgetary and overhead concerns.

The focus on space was also apparent in the National Security Strategy released in December 2017 and the National Space Strategy released in March.

Beyond tweets and mentions, the White House has not, in my opinion, made a compelling case for why such a force is needed. The Pentagon report, which supposedly lays its foundation, states that "potential adversaries are now actively developing ways to deny our use of space in a crisis. It is imperative that the United States adapts its policies, doctrine and capabilities to protect our interests."

The military roots of space exploration and NASA's early lessons

To say that military and space are intertwined is an understatement. Satellites provide civilian communications but also do the same for military units. Space analysts call this "dual-use" and it is also what makes it so difficult to separate peaceful, civilian activities from military ones.

New York City welcomes the Apollo 11 crew in a ticker tape parade down Broadway and Park Avenue. Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. The three astronauts teamed for the first manned lunar landing, on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

The military and civilian roots of are bound up tightly with one another. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October of 1957, it set off a panic in the United States about the capability not of the Soviets to explore space, but about their ability to launch deadly attacks on Americans. Thus, the Space Race was born not out of a desire to peacefully explore space, but Cold War politics.

President Dwight Eisenhower, careful not to read too much into the Soviet abilities, was cautious in responding to the threat. Although Eisenhower initially wanted the space effort to be run by the military, he was persuaded to create a more open, civilian space program in part to lessen "attention on U.S. national security space efforts." Legislation creating NASA was passed in 1958 with NASA opening its doors Oct. 1 of that year.

There are two lessons to be taken from NASA's establishment and early history. First, it was an agency born of a crisis. The United States was seemingly falling behind its Cold War adversary and the public demanded that the government respond. Crisis often precedes the establishment of new government agencies and provides those agencies with a base of public and political support.

In terms of a Space Force, there is no apparent crisis. We know that both Russia and China have been developing military capabilities in space. China first tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 and more recently, Russian satellites have been demonstrating new capabilities. There are most likely other military activities in these states, and perhaps others, they have undertaken that remain classified. If this is the case, then I believe the administration needs to lay a stronger foundation for why a Space Force is needed because lacking a crisis, support is often hard to come by.

A second, and related, lesson is in terms of public support. Although Americans tend to remember the space programs of the 1960s favorably, public support for NASA began to fall in the early 1960s and as Roger Launius, a NASA historian, writes, the data "do not support a contention that most people approved of Apollo and thought it important to explore space." Along with this came a drop in funding that left NASA scrambling in the late 1960s to accomplish Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Studies of public opinion often demonstrate a "thermostatic" relationship between public opinion and funding.

For the Space Force, public opinion is upside down. In recent polls, CNN found that 55 percent of Americans do not support the establishment of a Space Force while Rasmussen (typically a Republican-leaning poll) found that 40 percent of Americans are opposed, while 27 percent were unsure. If support and funding go hand in hand, these findings do not put the Space Force on a sustainable footing.

Consequences of a Space Force for NASA and militarization of space

Should the Trump administration succeed in establishing a Space Force or something like it, the move may have serious consequences for NASA. Depending on its mission, the Space Force is likely to require launch capabilities for satellites and perhaps human missions. Although a Space Force may be able to purchase these services from companies like SpaceX, if they choose to develop an in-house launch system, they may duplicate already existing NASA efforts. Doing so would also likely cause a brain drain at NASA as in-house engineers and experts migrated to the Space Force with promises of new missions and new funding.

There is also a question of whether the Space Force may simply take over current NASA missions. In the wake of the Space Force announcement, the Trump campaign sent out an email to supporters asking them to vote on a potential logo. Although this was a fundraising maneuver, one of the "logos" was themed around Mars with the wording "Mars Awaits." Given that the overall mission of the Space Force remains unclear, there could be a push for human spaceflight efforts to be subsumed under a Space Force. NASA's recent failures in the development of the Space Launch System, or SLS, and the James Webb Space Telescope only further reinforce the image of a NASA spread too thin to accomplish major space endeavors.

Finally, NASA's budget is already quite low considering its mission: US$19.7 billion in 2017 with $19 billion requested for 2018. This represents less than 0.5 percent of the overall federal budget. A Space Force could feasibly take away funding from NASA, especially for the development of human spaceflight capabilities thus cannibalizing NASA's already low budget.

In terms of geopolitics, establishing a Space Force could create a point of no return in of militarization of space. From Eisenhower onwards, U.S. policymakers have avoided the appearance of overt military influence in space. Both the United States and the Soviet Union joined the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which stipulated, among other things, the peaceful use of outer space and a ban on nuclear weapons. Following the Space Force announcement, Russian officials warned about potential violations of the treaty and that Russia might choose to withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. did.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy expert, warns in her recent book that the pace of American militarization of space has been increasing, perhaps to the point of no return. Her warning is that policymakers think about further actions before stepping into an arms race for which no one is prepared. While President Trump has certainly shaken up America's relations with other countries, such a drastic change in American posture could have significant and irreversible effects, creating a second space race. While it could have benefits for American society much as the original did, this time, I believe the dangers are likely to be far higher.

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13 comments

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Steelwolf
3 / 5 (3) Oct 18, 2018
Public Support for NASA started to fade when there were fewer and fewer straight NASA launches, too many of them were "Secret Military Launches", and there were a LOT of them, and so many felt that we already HAD a Space Force with the Shuttle putting pieces in place.

When the Public realized that NASA was just a front for military activity, THAT is when support fell off. Today there is growing excitement due to Musk's SpaceX program which is doing the things we EXPECTED from NASA with the Apollo type programs.

Considering the number of items that NASA delivered for the Military, it would be unwise to think that we Dont already HAVE a Space Force; just one run by the military industrial corporations so that even the Govt does not have high enough security code to enter their Secret Space Programs.

"Sorry Mr President, you do not have high enough security to be told of this program, if it even existed to begin with!"
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.3 / 5 (3) Oct 18, 2018
too many of them were "Secret Military Launches", and there were a LOT of them, and so many felt that we already HAD a Space Force with the Shuttle putting pieces in place
NASA is, was, and always has been, a military agency. Recon is a military op. The space program was a response to soviet sputnik provocation. The first rockets were adapted from ICBMs. The shuttles were designed to be launched from the $3B, EMP-hardened vandenburg AF site (never used), and to launch spysats and potential weapons with short prep times, to be able to loiter and change orbits at will, and to land at many different sites on earth. Their robot replacement is the USAF X35B.

Columbus' voyages established staging sites for military incursions onto the mainland. Once secured, civilian and commercial colonizing could proceed under the protection of these bases.

Space colonies will need protection as well. The STS is a milspec vehicle which explains the typical overruns and delays.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.5 / 5 (4) Oct 18, 2018
military industrial corporations... "Sorry Mr President, you do not have high enough security
Youre an idiot.
Doug_Nightmare
1 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2018
More and more nonscience from Da Convo?

NASA is over and done with. Liquidate it, sell it to private oligarchs.

Build the Super Conducting Super Collider in Waxahatchie Texas. Do some big Make America Great Again science.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2018
Mr steelwool gave me a 5/5 before he realized I punked him. I almost feel bad. Not.
Steelwolf
1 / 5 (1) Oct 19, 2018
I already knew that most of NASA was re-used/purposed military hardware, and that a lot of it was designed as 'defense' capability. But there always HAD to be the public side of it or it would get little money out of Congress, even if it was a defense initiative, it needed Public Support, and they got that in spades with the Redstone, Gemeni and Apollo projects (I got to sit in one of the Gemeni capsules in the Seattle Science Center as a kid).

But it was a very big argument at the time about how much of the supposedly Civilian Space Program had to be devoted to Military Launches, and there was outcry that the space program should be greatly expanded to give the people wanting to get industry into space the chance to do it THEN.

But the Shuttle Bottleneck put an end to that and set back our civilian space program to nearly the level of a bad joke. It is vitally important, yes, but it is such a disappointing baby step we were actually beyond just 50 years ago.
Steelwolf
1 / 5 (1) Oct 19, 2018
But as far as the President not having high enough authorizations to see certain projects, strictly normal. You would not show some civilians with possible big mouths and no security training about how a submarine fission pile runs and the full extraction cycle. That is higher level than the President can access as it is Need To Know Info Only, and there is a LOT of that in the Military.

If you have not been in the military then you have no clue, the President is not all that high on the Security totem pole. He can hire and fire those who may (or may not) know said data, but he is not allowed to know it himself.

Not even the Senate Security Council gets such working data as even they can be considered a security risk by saying something they did not know they were not supposed to about certain subjects. Techs know the compartmentalized info they need to do the job at hand, and then they Stay compartmentalized, or else.

If you think different, you don't know the subject.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 20, 2018
But there always HAD to be the public side of it or it would get little money out of Congress, even if it was a defense initiative, it needed Public Support
Naw it only had to rename things like recon and call it exploration, or outpost and call it ISS, or bridgehead and call it lunar base.

It's like selling fusion research 'the answer to our energy future' when it's real purpose is to develop the tech to confine, manipulate, and transport materials like antimatter in plasma form.

And when it was time to redirect the program away from a single multipurpose vehicle as Carter had directed, and back to rockets which made more sense, they indeed used a civilian to press the point - they put a teacher on a shuttle and tested it to destruction.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 20, 2018
If you have not been in the military then you have no clue, the President is not all that high on the Security totem pole. He can hire and fire those who may (or may not) know said data, but he is not allowed to know it himself
You have a source for this? He may not need or want to know, but he certainly can know if he wants.
Techs know the compartmentalized info they need to do the job at hand, and then they Stay compartmentalized, or else
The potus is not a tech.
If you think different, you don't know the subject
And if you're more than just bullshit you can provide a source.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 20, 2018
I'll give you a source:

"The President has no security clearance, in the sense that other employees of the federal government do. Simply put, there is no document held by the United States government that the President is restricted from viewing for reasons of national security. It's also impossible for the President to violate a security classification; the President has the absolute authority to decide who is and is not entitled to know what is in a classified document, and may reveal any classified fact he or she deems appropriate to any person at any time for any reason (except possibly for a few narrow cases where specific statutes make such releases illegal).

"There are documents that the President is not permitted to see (individual Census returns, for example) and information the President may know but legally cannot share, but these restrictions flow from statutory rules that are intended to protect personal privacy. Such documents are not considered "classified"".
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 20, 2018
So you ARE full of shit.
Steelwolf
not rated yet Oct 26, 2018
There is much information that they do not tellt he President even exists, Should he manage to ask for it, by law they have to give him the answers, but they Do Not Have to OFFER the info. So, unless Mr President can ask for the proper file, his request goes nowhere. Also, the Intelligence Services are sworn to The Nation and The Constitution and NOT to the President himself.

The President is Not at the top of the security chain, no matter what sweet little nothings you like whispered from the govt medias. Mr Trump is finding this out, in spades, as he stumbles around committing Constitutional level infractions on a daily basis.

Do you REALLY think the Intelligence Agencies, ANY of them, are going to sit down and tell the President EVERYTHING? They would not have time in his presidency to Do so. Just the Basic clearance stuff, not the Above top secret, eyes only info.

If you have not worked around such services, you Just do Not know what you are talking about.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 26, 2018
Like I say, you're full of shit unless you can provide a reputable source that says the people who work for the president can keep secrets from him.

You cant. Which means you're full of shit.
If you have not worked around such services, you Just do Not know what you are talking about
Argument from authority. The refuge of trolls and senile old men.

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