US President Donald Trump’s plan for a Space Force will not change the way we explore beyond our planet. The development of civilian space travel has always been linked to the military, says DW’s Fabian Schmidt.
In addition to its army, its navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard and the Air Force, the armed forces of the United States will now also have a branch of the military beyond our planet — Space Force
For some, it is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars” by the media. For others, it’s life imitating art — science fiction becoming a reality.
The West may soon be equipping itself in space with missile defense technology — against nuclear attacks from rogue states or perhaps even Russia or China. It will also protect our communication, observation and navigation infrastructure. And it will fend off hackers who aim at taking over or crippling the assets that are vital to our complex societies.
Critics, on the other hand, are concerned about the militarization of space. The international cooperation exemplified by the International Space Station (ISS), for example, could fall by the wayside, and with it the peacemaking function of civil space research. Militarization, mistrust and espionage would be the order of the day in space travel.
But neither the hopes of some nor the fears of others will be fulfilled by US President Donald Trump’s decision to form a Space Force. In essence, nothing will change.
The militarization of space is nothing new
Space research has always been advanced by the military. All of today’s rocket technology has its origins in military research. It began with the construction of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s so-called superweapon, the V-2 rocket, which was the first long-range ballistic missile. The weapon was developed in Peenemünde, on the German island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea.
From there, rocket technology and its engineers went directly to the Soviet Union as spoils of war. The US also used V-2 developers. The most famous of them was Wernher von Braun.
The space race between the two main world powers was technologically inseparable from the development and construction of intercontinental missiles. The single aim of these weapons was to destroy cities on the other side of the Earth using nuclear weapons.
The first Earth observation satellites were also launched into orbit for the military, and used to spy on enemies. They provided images of Earth long before similar technology was made available for civil use. Yuri Gagarin’s first manned flight in space — just before the Cuban missile crisis — was, of course, a show of military power.
The situation surrounding satellite navigation was similar. It started as a military project and was only later released for civilian use, initially with less precision. Even today, the military has an emergency “kill switch” on hand for satellite navigation.
The further development of space travel has always been the other side of the arms race coin: The industries involved have always built research satellites and space capsules, as well as missiles.
The countless economic activities that exist beyond Earth today have all emerged from the wake of the military-inspired race for space.
Old wine in new bottles
To date, all US military space activities have been led by the Air Force, with the exception of certain parts of sea-based missile defense that belong to the Navy. And the Air Force is already doing everything in its power to secure its own military infrastructure in Earth’s orbit. What will now change above all is that this new subdivision of the armed forces will take over these tasks from the Air Force.
NASA, which is primarily responsible for civil space travel and research, will remain in operation. The organization will continue to cooperate with international partners including the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, ESA, and the Japanese space agency, JAXA. The work on the ISS will continue under these partnerships.
It will not be possible to launch this new futuristic Space Force agency overnight. Currently, no technology exists which can truly counter the threat of intercontinental missiles. It is not easy to get fast-flying objects out of the sky without a long warning period — even with the best “killer” satellites. The creation of a Space Force will not change that. In the immediate term, all it is likely to do is cost the US government a significant amount of money.