On June 18, President Trump announced that he was directing the U.S. military to establish a 6th branch of the military, which would be known as the Space Force. While there is some uncertainty as to when, how, or even whether this change would become effective, the intent seems to be to give military space operations more independence and focus—and likely more prominence and a bigger budget.
As expected, much of the Internet ridiculed and/or vilified the idea. Some saw the announcement as attempt to distract the public from the important–and still-ongoing–issue of immigrant children being separated from their families at the US/Mexico border. Others said the move was outright illegal, pointing to an international treaty governing the use of space, the Outer Space Treaty. The military seemed resistant to the idea, thinking that the restructuring would be burdensome and unnecessary.
And of course, people had fun with the prospect of something called the Space Force. Memes sprung up likening Donald Trump to Darth Vader, and there were references to the parody movie Space Balls. I’m proud of you, Internet. The hashtag #SpaceForceRecruitmentSlogans even became popular for a bit. My favorite was “You too can pew pew.”
Many people, though, think there’s at least some merit to the idea.
The military is already involved in space—satellites are vital for both surveillance and communication—so it’s is not like this would be a brand-new realm for military operations. The move would be more about streamlining the chain of command and opening the way for procedures and decision-making that are most appropriate for the unique environment of space. The best analogy, which most commentators have already recognized, is the creation of the US Air Force in 1947, which established a dedicated branch for the air in addition to the land and the sea.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in an interview, part of the military’s purpose is to protect one’s national assets, and the United States has a number of valuable assets in space. GPS and communication satellites are critical for our infrastructure. There are important scientific instruments operating in space, as well as expensive, proprietary equipment developed by US-based private companies. A dedicated space force would, presumably, ensure protection of these assets and interests against potential threats.
These potential threats are not hypothetical. Other nations, notably China and Russia, have highly developed technology along with interest and investment in space. They have demonstrated the ability to affect or destroy satellites in orbit. These have not been used in an antagonistic way, but it’s easy to see how they could be. Again, creating a dedicated military branch for space operations would allow the US to keep pace with these nations and guard against space-based threats.
There is a trend toward more overall activity in space, not less, which will almost by default lead to more military activity in space. I think the creation of something like a space force will turn out to be inevitable in the long term, and military minds would probably prefer to be on the front end of that trend rather than playing catch-up when it’s years too late. The idea of a space force isn’t be a futuristic pipe dream, but a practical step, albeit a big one, to respond to realities in the present and near future.
What does this mean for people of faith and how we should think about space and its implications for human life? How will the existence of a space force shape Christians’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors with respect to space?
In many ways, it’s too soon to answer these questions. We don’t know what a space force will look like, when it will begin, or what its primary focus will be, exactly. One thing does seem clear, though. Christian attitudes, values, and virtues–chiefly love, joy, and peace–must inform national conversations about the space force, along with exploration and scientific discovery related to outer space.
The fact that the US is even considering a dedicated space force (combined with other nations’ activities) ought to dispel any notion that space exploration is an inherently peaceful endeavor. Very often, when we talk about space exploration or imagine its eventual habitation, we imagine a future characterized by peace, cooperation, and the best of humanity. There are good reasons for this. The International Space Station represents a cooperation among many nations, and the Outer Space Treaty regarding the use of space strives for peace and collaboration.
At the same time, human nature doesn’t fundamentally change when we leave the ground or the atmosphere. Much of the advances that have made space exploration possible also have fully-developed military applications—rocket technology and ballistic missiles are a prime example. Humans fight one another, and human societies have wars with one another. I suspect that space exploration has thus far been largely peaceful because there have been few reasons and opportunities for wars in space, and there have been benefits from international cooperation because space exploration is hard. But if things change, and access to space becomes easier and more competitive, conflict will likely follow in some form or another.
That’s not to say that space exploration can’t be peaceful. I believe that it can, but doing so will require hard work and purposeful commitment on the part of governments and citizens. What I mean is, we can’t just allow things to run their course and assume that something about space will straighten us out and inspire peace. Human history has shown that war, not peace, is what tends to come about naturally. If we want peace, we will have to work for it.
That is where people of Christian faith ought to focus our attention. I believe Christians can and should lead the way toward ensuring a more peaceful existence both in space and on earth.