By now, thanks to the jokes and memes it has engendered, most people have probably heard about President Trump’s proposal for a U.S. Space Force. Vice President Mike Pence spoke more about it on Thursday. While it faces an uphill battle in Congress for approval to create this sixth branch of the American Armed Forces, it represents an important turning point in America’s foray into space.
Since space exploration began, the U.S. and other countries largely viewed it as a civilian, peaceful endeavor. Despite the rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, the two countries cooperated together in the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (for example) and a number of treaties were signed which attempted to ensure multi-national cooperation and the peaceful exploration of space.
In particular, there are the "five United Nations treaties on outer space:” the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention, and the Moon Agreement.
The Moon Agreement states that the moon and other “celestial bodies” should be explored peacefully and that there be no secret bases or military activity. The Rescue, Liability, and Registration agreements are somewhat similar in that all nations agree to work together to make sure that everyone can operate in space in a defined, safe, and peaceful manner. The Outer Space Treaty is based on similar tenets and explicitly bans “weapons of mass destruction” (largely envisioned as nuclear weapons at the time) in space.
Although more conventional weapons and military activity are not explicitly banned in these treaties, their entire ethos is that space is meant for all the people of Earth to jointly explore (indeed, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series, which was a product of this same era and ethos, was based on this premise and used it as a backdrop to explore themes such as what it means to be human and relations between people of different cultural and ethnic/national backgrounds).
Thus, whether the proposed Space Force actually becomes the sixth branch of the American Armed Forces or not, the signal that the Trump administration is sending is that space has become a valid domain for warfare. Other countries have been inching towards this realization as well, but here Trump is stating it openly.
Thus, what’s most significant about Trump’s proposal is that, for good or bad, it goes against the ethos of half a century of space exploration.
Maybe the Rubicon has already been crossed and the die cast, however. U.S. intelligence is reporting that Russia and China are already covertly developing anti-satellite weapons in order to degrade U.S. defenses in the event of a war. Perhaps the peaceful era of space exploration is coming to a close and a new era is beginning to dawn. As humans explore the cosmos, it is apparent that we will bring our problems with us, just as the European explorers brought theirs to the New World. This is expected, perhaps, since we are fallen creatures, but still lamentable to those of us who look up at the night sky in wonder.
(Image: Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, July 17, 1975. American Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Soviet Cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov shaking hands as the two spacecraft dock. By NASA - http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/apollo-soyuz/apollo-soyuz/html/s75-29432.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15707072 )