The Space Force, NASA and executives in the space industry breathed a collective sigh of relief earlier this month when the Biden administration finally provided some answers to lingering questions about its support for military and civilian space activities.
In consecutive briefings, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden is not revisiting the decision to establish the Space Force and intends to back NASA’s program to return humans to the moon.
The White House statements were particularly good news for the Space Force, which has often been referred to as “Trump’s Space Force” even though it was signed into law with bipartisan support from Congress. But Biden’s silence on space issues during the campaign and over the transition of power worried Space Force enthusiasts and caused some concern within the service.
Before the White House clarified the president’s position, experts had argued that the Space Force was not in danger although it would not get the same level of attention it got from Trump. For obvious reasons the administration would need to put space on the back burner and focus on more pressing priorities. But after Psaki glibly dismissed a reporter’s question on the Space Force as trivial, she got an earful from some lawmakers. Psaki came back the next day with an unambiguous statement of support.
Following the White House endorsement, another good thing happened to the Space Force and its public image: its flag flew alongside those of the other branches of the armed forces at the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida, during the singing of the national anthem.
To many in America, that apparently was sufficient proof that the Space Force is not a joke after all.
“If you haven’t heard, Space Force is an actual thing we have in this actual country,” the popular sports blog Deadspin noted in its Super Bowl coverage, pointing out that the Space Force is a branch of the U.S. armed forces.
That is not to say that people won’t continue to mock the Space Force and question why we need guardians of the galaxy. This clearly will be a challenge for the Space Force as it begins its second year in existence: explain to the public what it is and what it does. That could take some time.
It was notable that a few days after Biden’s statement of support, CNN’s Michael Smerconish interviewed the former head of the Air Force Space Command retired general William Shelton, in a story titled: “Why the Space Force is no laughing matter.”
Shelton talked about the threats posed to the United States by high-power lasers and other weapons being developed by China and Russia to take down U.S. satellites. The United States has “some incredible capability in space,” Shelton said, but those assets need to be protected and that is why the Space Force was formed.
Shelton said it was unfortunate that the Space Force turned into a political punching bag.
After speaking with Shelton, Smerconish observed: “The take-away at least for me is that Space Force ought to be evaluated on its own merits and not in association with a former commander in chief.” In other words, he said. “Let’s not pass judgment on him and therefore say we should or shouldn’t have a Space Force. Let’s look at it and make a decision that way.”
Psaki in a tweet invited the leaders of the Space Force to the White House briefing room to tell their story. The generals should take her up on that.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue.