Bad Idea: Conflating the Space Force with NASA
December 21, 2018
When President Trump first publicly floated the idea of creating a Space Force in March 2018, the news media and late-night comedians couldn’t help but have some fun with it. Trump himself seemed to say that he wasn’t really serious when he first thought of the idea, but then decided it was a great idea. He said a Space Force was needed because of all the private money being invested in commercial space companies, and he specifically referenced the SpaceX Falcon Heavy inaugural launch that had taken place just a month earlier (which did not include a military payload of any kind). He then went on to say, “From the very beginning, many of our astronauts have been soldiers and airmen, Coast Guard men and Marines. And our service members will be vital to ensuring America continues to lead the way into the stars.” Besides taking a swipe at Navy astronauts by neglecting to mention sailors, statements like this seem to confuse human spaceflight (which has always been the domain of NASA) with the Space Force and national security space. Conflating the two is bad for national security and bad for NASA.
While it is true that many U.S. astronauts have come from the military–John Glenn was the first Marine in space–they were on loan from the military to NASA and did not continue to play a role in the military while serving as astronauts. But the United States wisely made a point of separating space exploration and human spaceflight from national security space decades ago for good reasons. NASA’s focus is on science and pioneering “the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”  That mission is often best pursued by collaborating with researchers in other nations because science and exploration benefit all of humanity, not just Americans. National security space, whether it be the existing military services or a new Space Force, is focused on developing, operating, and defending military space systems to support the national security interests of the United States and its allies. To be clear, the Trump administration is not actually proposing that NASA be merged into the Space Force, but the rhetoric has at times suggested otherwise.
This piece was published as part of the Defense360
Kaitlyn Johnson is a research associate with the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.