WASHINGTON — With 28 years of service in the U.S. Air Force and 16 years as a NASA astronaut, Terry Virts understands why the Pentagon has fought back proposals to create an independent military space corps.
Virts now believes the momentum is shifting.
“It’s such a no brainer,” Virts told SpaceNews. “Space, air, cyber, those are truly different domains.” Space is becoming a battlefront in a broader competition among world powers, he said, making it more of an imperative to give space forces a bigger voice.
The military services should collaborate and share resources, Virts said, but each branch has a distinct mission that requires specialized training and equipment. “The bottom line is that you don’t want truck drivers driving boats. And you don’t want pilots flying spaceships. Would you want the Army approving aircraft carrier designs?”
Advocates of standing up an autonomous space corps within the Department of the Air Force include key lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee. Virts reckons that they face an uphill fight. He called it “disappointing” that national security priorities are being stalled by bureaucratic inertia.
Virts is one of only four astronauts ever to have piloted a space shuttle, flown on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, performed space walks and commanded the International Space Station. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and served as an experimental test pilot in the F-16 combined test force.
“The kind of person who learns how to fly an airplane and drop bombs is different than one who learns to fly spaceships,” he said.
Space operations demand unique skills like understanding orbits and calibrating sensors. “It’s not flying F-16s.” This reality becomes clear during promotion boards, Virts said, “Where you see that pilots and space guys don’t understand each others’ career paths.”
The space cadre within the Air Force is sizeable, Virts noted. Many people would be surprised to know that the Air Force Space Command is three times the size of NASA. “Air Force Space command started in the early 1980s. It’s definitely mature enough to be its own force and not a subcommand within the Air Force,” he said.
These issues will be probed in an upcoming study to be overseen by the Pentagon’s interim space adviser to the defense secretary, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Congress stripped that role from the secretary of the Air Force out of frustration that service leaders are not paying sufficient attention to space. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 directed the study — focused on how to reorganize the military space enterprise — be conducted by an independent think tank.
Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee told SpaceNews last month that the committee has not given up on the idea of a space corps. “I think logically, eventually, we will get to a space corps,” Smith said. “We will push it again.”
Defense and space analyst Todd Harrison, who oversees aerospace programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recalled that the movement to create a space corps gained momentum with the 2001 Space Commission Report led by Donald Rumsfeld. The conclusion of that report: “Yep, we need to get on a path to transition to an independent service for space if not an independent department for space,” Harrison commented.
Notably, after Rumsfeld became secretary of defense “he kind of let it go. And it didn’t progress from there,” Harrison said. He does not believe the HASC is “going to let it die. I think they’re going to keep pushing it forward, inch by inch.”
A reasonable timeline for the transition would be about five years. “Maybe a little more, little less depending on how aggressive you want to be,” he said. “That obviously is going to require Congress to put that into law.”
The acquisition of new satellites, space sensors, launch vehicles and other complex systems requires specialized talent, Harrison said. The Air Force would be politically wise to start making some changes soon, such as creating a separate workforce within the Air Force for space acquisitions. “It’s not plausible to think that you can take any acquisition professional who’s worked on other types of systems and plop them into a space program and expect them to perform to the level that we need them to perform.”
Building a satellite has little in common with building airplanes, he added, “no more than building an Army tank has anything in common with building a fighter jet. You wouldn’t take an acquisition professional from the Army and put them in charge of the F-35 program. So why do we do that for space?”
The Air Force could start doing that now, Harrison suggested, and Congress would likely welcome the initiative.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service is moving to implement the reforms that Congress passed in the National Defense Authorization Act.
“We will comply with the law, but there is a lot of different ways to do it,” she said earlier this month at a space industry event. “The Air Force still has to do planning, strategy and budgeting for 80 percent of the military’s space enterprise. The work is still there. It is just a question of how we do it and how we assign people to do it.”