Since its announcement last month, the Space Force has been a subject of anger, confusion, and even ridicule by yours truly:
The proposed branch of the military seeks to have an armed force and permanent presence on the moon – a clear violation of the international space treaty that addresses military activity in space and ownership of land on other planets/moons (yes, it’s a real thing).
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And now, the administrator of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, has weighed in on the matter.
Just a couple months ago, I encountered Mr. Bridenstine at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, a day before we saw a rocket launch. I’m the goofy-looking guy near the back, in the center.
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) May 20, 2018
Mr. Bridenstine had previously asked then-president Obama for an apology for spending money on climate change research while speaking on the House floor:
Bridenstine has finally acknowledged that climate change is real, which is a good thing as NASA’s has a central role in climate change research. But his history of partisanship and lack of experience running a large government agency is still cause for concern, and it’s no surprise that he’s backing Trump’s Space Force proposal.
According to Bloomberg News:
Last summer, when he was still in Congress, Bridenstine supported a measure that would have created a “space corps.” It passed the House but was removed from the final defense spending bill. Then last month, Trump called for the Pentagon to develop a sixth branch of the American armed services that would protect national and commercial interests in space.
Trump’s surprise announcement caught Pentagon officials and members of Congress off guard. The Defense Department already has several major programs in the works and the Air Force has contended that a new branch was not necessary for space defense. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who once took part in a space shuttle mission, tweeted: “generals tell me they don’t want” it and “now is NOT the time to rip the Air Force apart.”
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It’s no secret that the primary cause for NASA’s creation was for military reasons. Think back to the end of World War II: Nazi scientists, knowing they were facing defeat, opted to be taken captive by Allied forces instead of facing… who knows what from the Russians. Germany’s top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, had developed the German V2 rocket in 1942. It was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. The V2 rocket went up 80 kilometers, near the Kármán line (100 kilometers – the generally-agreed upon boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space), then fell down on England causing massive destruction.
We improved on these ballistic missiles and created intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – missiles that literally fly up to the edge of space then essentially fall down to their target far, far away.
The space race started because of huge leaps in technology that resulted from World War II, and because of a new threat during the Cold War – Russia. In effect, it was a proxy “war” for the Cold War, which is why so much funding went into human spaceflight.
In 1965, just seven years after NASA was founded, we decided it’d be a great idea to modify one of these ICBMs and set a human person on top. NASA called it the Gemini program.
Wernher von Braun would go on to design the world’s most powerful rocket engine ever made: the F-1 engines that powered the Saturn V rocket to the moon.
(Fun fact: the reason for the checkerboard-like pattern on the rockets was so that you could visibly see if the rocket was spinning while in flight, something German rocket scientists created, but as they absorbed heat from the sun, it resulted in heat spikes inside the fuel tanks of the rocket.)
It’s weird to think about how something as horrendous as the V2 can result in something so incredible.
Back to Bridenstine
Bridenstine has expressed value in a military presence in space:
“Every banking transaction requires a GPS signal for timing,” Jim Bridenstine said in an interview. “You lose the GPS signal and guess what you lose? You lose banking.”
“If you look at what space is, it’s not that much different than the ocean,” added Bridenstine, who made 333 aircraft-carrier landings as a Navy pilot. “It’s an international domain that has commerce that needs to be protected.”
Well, he’s not wrong.
While it’s not knowingly happened yet, it’s likely just a matter of time before another country maliciously attacks our assets in space. And if we don’t have a means to defend ourselves, we could be left vulnerable.
And with all the private companies with vehicles that are currently able to achieve Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK), SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and soon to be many others, it creates even more opportunities for bad things to happen to our satellites.
Is it possible that the “Space Force” could actually be beneficial to human spaceflight? The International Space Station alone cost $150 billion to construct. NASA’s current annual budget is only about $20 billion. A 2009 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that a lunar base would cost $35 billion to establish and over $7 billion a year to operate.
I’ve raised this issue before – I think we need to establish a base on the moon before we even think about colonizing Mars. The moon is close by and seems boring, but we need to learn to walk before we can run. A resupply mission to the moon is just a few days if something goes catastrophically wrong – a mission to Mars can take 6 months or more, depending on where it’s at in its orbit.
Though it has its roots in the military, NASA itself is not a military organization. I would love to see NASA get a huge boost to its budget instead of creating a new branch of the military. But I can’t stop wondering if we could accomplish the goal of landing humans on the moon and establishing a colony quicker using the “Space Force” (and the funding it would receive).
Money spent in space has always had direct, tangible benefits here on Earth. Space exploration is still space exploration, and this could be a way to get more space exploration with Trump sycophants supporting the funding of it.