Last Friday, Donald Trump unveiled a new Space Force flag at an Oval Office ceremony, hinting that its “troopers” might wield a “super-duper missile” that can travel 17 times faster than any other. Many saw the spectacle, alongside his recent executive order to mine the moon, and musings of developing a nuclear-powered space ship that could travel direct to Mars, as promises deranged and empty as his coast-to-coast border wall, purchase of Greenland, or threat of nuking hurricanes. Even his 2018 announcement of the “Space Force” was mocked with memes of a face-palming Picard, or GIFs of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross from the 1997 Mr. Show sketch in which NASA announces, for no apparent reason, that it will “blow up the moon.”
And yet, just eighteen months after the laughter died down, the United States Space Force officially emerged as the sixth branch of the US Military. At a tenth the size of the Marine Corps with 16,000 personnel, it is by far the smallest, but is already aggressively recruiting for its planned annual expansion.
NASA followed Trump’s lead last Friday by announcing an “Artemis Plan” of dividing celestial bodies and Earth’s orbit into spheres of national and private influence, so the future, they say, can look “more like ‘Star Trek,’ and a lot less like ‘Star Wars.’” The name of this plan refers to NASA’s Artemis Program of establishing a lunar colony and travelling the Mars over the next two decades, and invokes the 1968 Outer Space Treaty as a guiding influence. But without acknowledging that the USSF’s active militarization and New Space Age corporate speculation are part-and-parcel to the plan, NASA has become a public relations front for a continued campaign of cosmic imperialism in conflict with the spirit of that treaty, which sought to defend against militarization of space by designating it collective and international.
In an interview with GEN, USSF second commander David Thompson described their little-discussed actual operations. Far from the sci-fi images of armed shuttles patrolling orbit, he says they are, for now, only taking on the tasks previously under the purview of the US Air Force’s space command: keeping track of a growing number of orbital objects, developing new space technologies, and maintaining GPS and other communication capabilities primarily for military, but also civilian use. Now a distinct military branch, he says, they will do these while developing their own distinct culture.
Although largely superficial, that final task has received the most attention. At the White House ceremony, the Space Force flag was unfurled to reveal a logo invoking both NASA and Star Trek in an effort to steal some golden-era space age shine. SpaceX CEO and USSF partner Elon Musk said as much in a March conversation with Thompson: “We’ve got to make Starfleet happen… When the public hears ‘Space Force,’ that’s what they think. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to have some sweet spaceships and pretty good uniforms and stuff’.”
Aside from design sensibility, Space Force or SpaceX resemble the defense force of the United Federation of Planets very little. Their mission is not to “maintain peace and freedom within our Federation borders; to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; and to boldly go where no one has gone before,” but to strengthen US empire and create immense profits for corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, and Halliburton, to name a few.
In order to do so, they must first roll-back the half-century of treaties designating space as the collective frontier of mankind. Congress passed legislation encouraging moon and asteroid mining in 2015, and in 2017 the Department of Defense announced it would treat space as a “warfighting domain” by using satellites to coordinate use of force on the ground. This February, space policy consultant Rand Simberg wrote a column for Reason equating the collective concept of space as socialism. He argued that space should be instead treated like the American frontier. The Trump administration concurred this year in its executive order: “Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space…”
The imminent goal, however, is controlling life on earth. Space Force will protect the rollout of satellite arrays for the purpose of spying and implementation of 5G wireless networks. There are, of course, civilian uses to these technologies, but their main purpose is reinforcing communication between military installations, coordinating air strikes, protecting friendly satellites networks while threatening hostile ones, and coordinating an anti-missile “space-fence,” designed to protect the United States from retaliation should it launch a nuclear first-strike. Some of these capabilities have already been showcase in January’s skirmishes with Iran.
The hostile undertones of space exploration are nothing new. For the Soviet state, the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957 was less about scientific progress than showing-off the increased range of their intercontinental ballistic missiles. The subsequent space race began with an even more hostile plan from the US government. A group of scientists were instructed to draw up plans to detonate a nuclear weapon on the moon by 1959 in an act of intimidation. The plan was scrapped after researchers, including then graduate student Carl Sagan, determined a failed launch could nuke the Earth. Perhaps the blowing up the moon not such an absurd premise for a sketch after all.
To be fair, that satire was less about history than the present. In the sketch, the public greets the announcement that the moon will be destroyed with the same sort of jingoistic flag-waving that accompanied military interventions against Iraq. The enthusiasm is only interrupted when one of the monkeys trained to carry-out the mission asks in sign language: “Why?”
With all the mockery of Trump, too few asking this simple question today. This may be because, aside from Trump’s buffoonish distractions, space exploration is simply too exciting, too intangible, too seemingly harmless to raise widespread concern. How can one oppose corporations mining the moon or asteroids without at least equal concern spent to the exploitative and environmentally destructive continuation of terrestrial extractivism? How can we oppose increasingly sophisticated arrays of spy satellites when there is no opposition to the apparently irreversible strengthening of the Patriot Act? Why should we worry about the Space Fence when Trump’s DHS camps are at capacity with sick and dying migrants and refugees, and construction on his border wall already destroys miles of sacred borderlands?
Historian of space colonialism Harris Durrani wrote for the Nation earlier this year about how some have fought back. In 1979, realizing the insufficiencies of the Outer Space Treaty, 18 states have ratified a “Moon Treaty” that seeks to strengthen the idea of a pacific and collective space through the creation of a legal framework enforced by an international regime. In 1976, several developing and non-aligned nations met in Colombia to announce a more radical declaration of the independence of the space as a “universal community.” As leverage, they called on participating countries to withhold their tropical real estate, the most valuable both for launching pads and orbital positions, to any First World space programs who would not comply.
Although these efforts failed, the people of these countries have occasionally taken matters into their own hands. In 2017, protesters occupied the world’s second busiest space port in French Guyana against poverty in the country attributed to the neglect of their French colonial rulers. A similar disruption is ongoing since last year in the Big Island of Hawaii against a telescopic facility planned for the summit of Mauna Kea. Durrani hoped stories like these could inspire actions against Space Force installations in the Marshall Islands and other US territories, or the Alcantara Launch Center in Brazil that Bolsonaro signed away to Trump last year. Likewise, the organization Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space has continued to investigate space militarization and privatization and organize regular direct actions against it since the eighties.
The Space Age has always served as both a promise, a threat, and a way of distracting and overwhelming the realities on Earth. This, too, is illustrated succinctly by Mr. Show when the sketch transitions seamlessly to the next, beginning with an office worker seeing the moon explode in the night sky out his office window. “They did it… they blew up the moon!” he informs his unimpressed boss, who promptly shuts the blinds and tells him to get back to work.
A.M. Gittlitz is the author of I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism (Pluto, 2020). He is a journalist and social critic based in Brooklyn, New York, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The New York Times, The Outline, Baffler, Real Life, Salon, and Vice.
He will be in conversation with Owen Hatherley on 26th May, discussing Apocalypse Communism. Click here for tickets.