Op-ed | What should we call the men and women of Space Force?

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Last year, I was invited by the U.S. government to a couple of workshops to help visualize future scenarios and strategies, which triggered a question in my mind: So what do you call members of the Space Force in all their varied roles?

Several things must be considered:

  • There is no centuries-old tradition to inform our choice.
  • The traditions that do exist in other services can be inconsistent and confusing.
  • Science fiction and culture have already set some expectations, both good and bad (starship trooper, space cadet, spaceman spiff).
  • We have a preexisting space culture with its own terminology, namely “astronaut” for those who actually fly in space.
  • The new service is being carved from the Air Force, but space is seen as analogous to the sea and thus the domain of the sea services and nautical terminology enter the discussion.
  • Any term should be usable as a formal designation for lower ranks.
  • It should cover all members of the service. Everyone in the Navy, from ensign to admiral, is a Sailor. In the Army, all are Soldiers. In the Marine Corps, it’s Marine. And in the Air Force, all service members are Airmen (male or female — an awkward problem we can fix in the space service.)
  • We must include gender neutrality in our choice to reflect modern sensibilities.

    A makeshift Space Force uniform is modeled during a Halloween celebration in San Diego in 2018. Credit: Nathan Rupert via Flickr

As a side note, this entire conversation would be much easier if the new service were called Space Guard. I prefer this as the title for the force, as I see it as a lot less confrontational and reflective of many more of the new service’s roles. Frankly, it is not out of the question that a new administration changes the embryonic service’s name as part of the traditional erasing of legacies in space projects, and as a step short of trying to reverse its creation (a very bad idea). If this happens, we’ve got this part of the job handled: we can simply call them Guardians.

But back to the question at hand. An early contender for a Space Force service member was Sentinel. While that’s great for those managing early warning systems, it’s too passive overall, as it denotes someone who waits, when many current and future activities will be active and proactive. Some suggest Spaceman but up comes the gender issue and we would have to have Spacewoman. It’s just too ponderous.

I believe the best name for Space Force members is Spacer. It combines simplicity and gender neutrality with the ability to apply it specifically to the enlisted ranks.

Now hold your giggle. It works.

Like Sailor, Soldier or Marine, Spacer encompasses anyone in the service regardless of rank or gender. This is important for morale, creating a unified bottom-up identification for all ranks and levels of command. Thus, while everyone in the Space Force would be a Spacer, it is also a specific prefix for enlisted members (Spacer Second Class, First Class,etc..).

Spacer is also clean and short. After all, the NCOs who actually run all branches of the military do not like too many syllables. “Drop and give me twenty, Spacewoman!” doesn’t roll off the tongue like “Hit the airlock, Spacer!”

Next come officers. How to blend the air and sea traditions? Perhaps a slight melding of the ranks and their meanings is a solution.

For noncommissioned officers, Air Force terminology can remain in place. A Sergeant will always be a Sergeant anywhere in the Solar System (my dad was one and we still call him “Sarge”).

We can keep the term Lieutenant, common to several services. A midrank officer can be a Commander (Navy). Then comes Captain, which is common to the Army, Air Force, the Navy and Marines (although Captain is a higher rank in the Navy and Coast Guard, the equivalent of a Colonel in the other services). In the Air Force, a Captain may or may not fly hardware. However, in Space Force it can be reserved for one who runs a spacecraft with a crew. Above this grade, we could keep the Major, Colonel and General officer ranks used by all the services except the Navy and Coast Guard. Admiral is a nice title and is used in space fiction but I don’t see Air Force brass transitioning into the new service getting too excited about changing their titles. (Perhaps when we launch Star Fleet).

Yes, for now, the term Spacer may elicit a smile, even a giggle for some. But it checks off all the boxes for a military branch created in the 21st century, and is flexible enough that even if the new service shifts to a more maritime orientation, it still works.

The men and women who step up to serve on the high frontier of space will create a culture that is unique, and will establish their own traditions. Let’s start them off with names and ranks that fit their unique role. Frankly, there is no term in this science fiction-like discussion that won’t cause some poking of fun, but in the future it will become something kids aspire to be.

Of course, next will come the name for the first graduates of the Space Academy, as the term Space Cadet flips to a new meaning. Yes, it too may have some small smile factor at first, but that will fade quickly, especially after coverage of the first graduating class in their new black uniform…


Rick Tumlinson is a founding board member of the X Prize who led the commercial takeover of the Russian MIR space station. He has testified before the U.S. Congress six times, and won the World Technology Award in 2015. His company Spacefund is a VC firm investing in space startups. Follow him on Twitter: @rocketrick

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.